Cat therapy: offering furry assurance

November 12, 1993|By Ron Wiggins | Ron Wiggins,Cox News Service

Cat therapy happens almost too slowly for the eye to follow, although the heart sees all.

Cat therapy is happening now between the 5-year-old brittle bone patient and the 14-pound cat in her lap as she tools down the hall in her wheelchair. The child, who also has a cleft palate, crossed eyes and mild retardation, eagerly follows a group touring Broward Children's Center in Pompano Beach, Fla., the first pediatrics skilled nursing facility in the state.

While the group stops at the bed of another patient, the wheelchair pilot pauses in the doorway, regards her feline passenger adoringly and suddenly plunges her face into inert cat.

"Bice kiddy," she says thickly through tummy fur.

The cat therapist is Midnight, one of three cats on the staff of the nonprofit nursing home for 35 children with severe medical problems. All have access to cat therapy.

Pet therapy has been around for years, but with dogs usually cast in the companion role. Cats? Too aloof, too temperamental. You can take a cat to a patient, but you can't make him nurture.

Documented exceptions to that rule are Midnight and his colleagues, Hobie Cat and Orrie. They earned academic credentials in cat therapy by helping their owner, Briana Hagquist, get her master's degree in nursing home administration.

"My thesis was 'Working with cats in animal-assisted therapy programs,' " explained Ms. Hagquist, BCC administrator. "Midnight, Hobie Cat and Orrie are working cats with great empathy for the medically fragile."

Orrie, she says of her 18-pound Russian blue, especially "loves to work with Alzheimer patients. They'll talk to him and he listens. One lady thought he was her husband and started discussing the checkbook with him. He heard her out. He's very non-judgmental."

She says that Hobie Cat, a long-haired, silver classic tabby, has an affinity for children who, to first appearances, are unaware of their surroundings. Patient in point: Nicole Janello, 9, has been blind from birth, a victim of toxoplasmosis, a prenatal infection. Her condition includes cerebral palsy and mental retardation. She can't talk except to cry out from her shadowy world when troubled.

The youngster, small and pale, is moaning disconsolately when a delegation including her cat therapist comes into the room to visit beside her bed, a large crib. Ms. Hagquist greets the child and caresses her hair, but her keening continues. Now Ms. Hagquist drops Hobie Cat beside Nicole. The Russian longhair easily might have bolted or slipped through the crib slats to escape the patient's cries, but instead, he nuzzles up to the child's back and then prods the bedding beside her with his forepaws.

"See that kneading action?" asks Ms. Hagquist. "A cat only does that when he's happy." Then a miracle -- the child feels a furry presence, turns toward the warmth and smiles. Hobie Cat settles in beside the child and suddenly, all is quiet. Both sleep.

"He knows he's working," Ms. Hagquist whispers.

While all three cats would seem to bring the temperament of warm cookie dough to the job, this is hardly the case when they're at home, where they insist on cat prerogatives. Ms. Hagquist explains:

"They don't like the neighbor kids. When kids come over, the cats disappear. And yet at work, they seem to understand that there is something different about the children at the center -- they know there is something wrong."

For instance, Orrie becomes protective when visiting a child in bed. If anybody in a uniform or lab jacket comes around, whether it's to bathe a patient or change bedding, Orrie will position himself between the child and the adult and become very agitated if the child experiences discomfort.

A cat therapist brings not only empathy to the job, but also discretion. At first, Felecia Buchanan, 15, who cannot move her arms and legs because of congenital arthrogryposis, did not take to cat therapy gladly. An excellent student who operates both computer and wheelchair by means of a breath-operated tube, Felecia feared the cats.

"She didn't even want them in the building," recalls Ms. Hagquist. She said, 'What's this going to do to kids with allergies?' "

A good point. Half the youngsters at Broward Children's Center breathe through tracheotomy tubes with ventilator assistance, so what about allergies? Answer: Ms. Hagquist regularly treats her animals with an anti-allergenic spray. And yet Felecia was adamant: Keep those fool cats away from her.

The cats were not offended.

Ms. Hagquist laughs. "Funny thing, but after a while, Felecia would ask me to walk by the door with a cat so she could see it. Then she would ask me to bring one into the room, 'but not too close.' Now she's our biggest cat therapy advocate and the first to sign up for a field trip to a cat show."

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