According to Psychology Today, research shows that just looking into the eyes of a pet can lower a person’s heart rate. Their presence alone is enough to calm a person down, give them warmth, and help them feel loved and soothed.
For this reason, animals have been used in therapeutic situations to help relieve stress and to provide a calming presence for those who have gone through traumatic situations. And while dogs and horses are the most common animals that provide this comfort, Crisis Center North’s (CCN) Paws for Empowerment program now has a therapy cat as well.
Thea, a Sphynx, works with her owner, Youth Counselor Sydney Stephenson, to help children and teens work through issues surrounding domestic violence.
“Thea provides a comforting presence at what is one of the hardest times in their lives,” said Stephenson. “Having an animal partner there during a therapy session makes clients feel safe and aids in relaxation. Sphynx cats are also four degrees warmer than regular cats, which is very comforting; when she sits on someone’s lap, you see their whole body language change.”
Research has documented how a cat’s purr provides physiological benefits, such as decreasing heart rates and relieving depression and anxiety, according to Stephenson. “What we’re finding is that any type of human-animal interaction is important. Something about it speaks to people; particularly people who have experienced trauma, or who have mental health issue, and seniors,” she said.
While numerous animals have been used in therapy including dogs, horses, pigs, rabbits, goats and even snakes and turtles, Thea excels in providing play therapy, which includes going through an obstacle course, playing with a toy mouse, letting clients dress her up, or performing tricks.
“The Sphynx breed is affectionate, high energy and playful, and they are also very food motivated, which makes them easier to train,” said Stephenson. “While it’s different for every cat, the misconception that cats are standoffish and stubborn isn’t always true; part of the problem is that while we are very familiar with dog body language, we’re not as familiar with how cats communicate.”
Stephenson has attended Animal Assisted Play Therapy® (AAPT) training, which includes four days of in-person instruction. “During this hands-on training, there is a huge emphasis not only on how to help the human client, but on the welfare and safety of the animal partner,” she explained.
Stephenson notes that as animal assisted therapy (AAT) gets more popular, it’s important that those who offer it get the proper education. “There are many benefits to animal assisted activities (AAA), such as reading with a dog, but there is a big difference between AAA and AAT,” she said. “If you’re going to practice AAT, it requires a specific set of training on both the human part and animal part, and it’s not a small undertaking.”
How to Train a Therapy Cat
Stephenson trains Thea using a clicker, and has used virtual sessions during COVID to show clients how to use the clicker to encourage Thea to learn tricks. During these play sessions, clients also learn important life lessons for themselves, such as how to set boundaries and the importance of consent.
“Thea was afraid of heights when I got her, which is unusual for a cat, and when I’m working with kids with severe anxiety issues, it’s helpful to demonstrate how Thea worked through her fears,” said Stephenson. “We talk about bravery, and what it might take for them to overcome their fears.
“It can also be beneficial when Thea doesn’t want to do something, because we talk about reading body language, and what we can do to make her feel more comfortable and make sure she’s safe,” added Stephenson. “When children come from backgrounds where consent wasn’t important and love means being hurt, it’s important to model positive training methods where we never use fear or punishment as a base.”
Stephenson uses Thea to teach these same lessons during family sessions to show what positive reinforcement methods look like.
Both Thea and Stephenson’s other Sphynx came from neglectful situations, and she shares their stories with her clients, who often relate to their backgrounds. The children also learn to adjust their behavior to work with Thea, with positive results.
“Animals don’t want to work with kids who are running around the room being loud, so Thea is perfect for teaching children with ADHD or hyperactivity calmer behaviors,” said Stephenson. “Most children are really excited and want to rush right in, so we talk about how to tone it down and how to read the cat to figure out what types of interactions she would enjoy.”
While some clients are anxious about being with the cat at first, Stephenson works with them to overcome their anxiety and fear. “There was one child, who was 8 or 10, who was so afraid of her that she wouldn’t come into the room, even when Thea was in a crate,” Stephenson explained. “So we worked on practicing deep breathing exercises outside the room, and I had her draw a picture of Thea.”
As the sessions progressed, the child was able to get comfortable being in the same room with Thea, and even came up to the cat and scratched her behind the ears.
“That was a really proud moment for her,” said Stephenson. “She ran out to her mom and said, ‘Look what I did!’ Her eyes just lit up.”
Thea’s fan club extends beyond therapy clients as well. She’s been featured on MSN and on NBC’s Today Show, as well as in People magazine. She even has a popular mindfulness meditation video on CCN’s website.
“Thea’s gone viral and has been shared on Yahoo! News in four or five different countries,” said Stephenson. “I think it’s great that her story resonated with so many people; it speaks to the power of animals and the human-animal bond.”
Thea is part of CCN’s Paws for Empowerment program, which also includes canine advocates Penny, Ari and Rune. The animals take part in animal assisted therapy, legal advocacy, and courtroom accompaniment for survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV).
“I knew I wanted to do animal assisted therapy work, but what sets CCN apart is not just an emphasis on working with animals, but on doing it in an appropriate and ethical way,” said Stephenson of what drew her to the domestic violence counseling and resource center. “They emphasize training and learning to make sure that not only do humans benefit, but that the animals benefit as well. You don’t want the animal to just tolerate it, but to enjoy it.”
To learn more, visit Crisis Center North at www.CrisisCenterNorth.org.
Vote for Penny!
Help a local dog become a hero! Crisis Center North’s canine advocate, Penny, is in the running for the American Humane Hero Dog Award, and you can help her bring home the title!
Like many victims of domestic violence, Penny is familiar with not having a home. Dropped off with her littermates to a shelter, Penny was found at the bottom of the pile of pups. From those humble beginnings, she transformed her past into a new life of service that brings hope to victims as the first canine court advocate in Allegheny County and the first shelter dog in the state to provide canine court services to victims of domestic violence.
Voting is open every day until May 6, so visit https://herodogawards.org/dog/penny-3 today!