When Morgan the therapy cat enters a room, it’s not unusual for a chorus of “awwwws” to follow.
“They absolutely love her, and are pleasantly surprised that she doesn’t squirm to get away from them,” says owner Allison Burton.
The friendly rescue feline is part of a human-pet team for Pets and Friends, a non-profit organization that screens, trains and places therapy pets and their people in hospitals, care facilities and day programs. They also do pet therapy days at universities and colleges around exam time to calm stressed and anxious students.
Right now, there are approximately 230 human-pet teams visiting 210 facilities across the Lower Mainland. Though most of the pets are dogs, there are also a few special outgoing cats and even rabbits that volunteer as well.
“We were told that only a couple of cats pass their screening test a year,” says Burton, proudly.
After starting volunteering in November, Morgan’s first posting was at Cooper Place, a subsidized housing project in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The regular visits allow residents to experience the affection of an animal, even though the facility does not allow residents to keep pets of their own.
During a typical visit, Morgan will sniff the resident she’s sitting with before nestling into their lap for a good chin scratch session.
The physical comfort of cuddling and interacting with the feline seems to open people up emotionally, and many people start sharing their own pet stories.
“I get to witness first-hand the joy she brings to people and the effects she has on their health,” said Burton.
“Kindness and love is an essential part of all our communities. This work provides that.”
The benefits of pet therapy are numerous and critical in facilities where residents struggle with mental health, depression, fear and isolation, says program manager Marina Hebert.
Facility staff and family members report seeing many positive changes, including an increased willingness to talk about their needs, help managing depression and anxiety and a noticeably happier outlook.
In seniors centres, benefits include improved morale, lowered blood pressure, reduced stress and anxiety, and perhaps the most important, an increased ability to deal with feelings of loneliness and isolation.
It’s not just the recipients that benefit from pet therapy. Volunteers like Burton report getting back as much out of their visits as they give, and the journey allows people to connect with people they might not otherwise meet and to become a part of their communities.
And don’t forget the pets: “Many volunteers have told us that their pet knows when it’s time to go for their regular visit, and shows signs of excitement. It’s like they know they are off to be completely showered with affection and attention,” said Hebert.
You can put Morgan the cat on that list too: “She loves people and she loves the attention,” says Burton.
Not every pet has what it takes for therapy work. Pets and Friends looks for friendly, social, easy going personalities – the type of pets who love and seek out human interaction.
Animals are screened to make sure they genuinely love socializing. The sessions also run through things that may happen during visits, like loud noises and enthusiastic petting. Pets are also tested to see how they react to walkers, canes and wheelchairs.
Pets and Friends are looking for new volunteers and the first step is emailing [email protected] to sign up for a screening.
If your pet passes the screening, there is an orientation session before pets are matched into a facility that meets their needs.
Because residents and program participants develop a genuine love for visiting pets and look forward to their visits, it’s asked that volunteers commit to the program for at least one year. There are also volunteer opportunities for non pet owners.