Pet Connection

Purr Therapy

Cats bring solace, happiness and relaxation with visits to nursing homes, hospitals and other facilities

By Kim Campbell Thornton

Andrews McMeel Syndication

When their patient received a terminal cancer diagnosis, the staff at the Oregon nursing and rehabilitation facility where he was cared for offered him anything he wanted: cupcakes and ice cream for every meal, a pile of puppies to play with or anything else he could name.

“All I want is to have a cat on my lap again,” he said.

Basil to the rescue. The orange-and-white tabby, one of only 100 or so therapy cats recognized by therapy animal organization Pet Partners, made regular visits to the man for the last four weeks of his life.

“That was really special to me,” says Tina Parkhurst of Beaverton, Oregon, who fostered and then adopted Basil and her brother, Mac, after they were found in a field when they were about two weeks old.

Though not as numerous as therapy dogs, therapy cats throughout the country provide people of all ages and health conditions with unconditional love and comfort. Their visits can help improve patients’ mobility, memory, communication, pain management and self-esteem, or simply make them smile and laugh. Often, people reminisce about previous cats in their lives.

Parkhurst was familiar with the concept of therapy cats when she began fostering Basil and Mac. She recognized special qualities in their personalities that made her wonder if they would be suitable for the work. They connected easily with people and had calm natures. Basil seemed a little more fearless than Mac, so Parkhurst began training her first, teaching her to wear a harness and leash and taking her on visits to a big box pet supply store. Eventually, they went through the Pet Partners training program, earning a perfect score in the evaluation.

Now Basil and Parkhurst make visits to facilities two or three times a week. Basil gets a bath before every visit, and she’s trained to sit on a towel that is placed on a bed or someone’s lap. To entertain residents, she sits up on her hind legs and gives a high-five. But her best “trick” is her ability to help people relax. Parkhurst recalls one woman suffering from dementia whose daughter had invited them to visit.

Because of her dementia, the woman had become increasingly aggressive and agitated, unable to sleep despite heavy doses of medication. When Basil came to visit, the woman was sitting in a recliner, her daughter at her side.

“We started to talk, and I asked if she would like to have Basil on her lap,” Parkhurst says. “She said, ‘That would be nice.’ I put Basil’s blanket on her lap, put Basil down and in three minutes this woman who would not sleep unless she was heavily medicated was crashed out like a light. Basil was out like a light, too. Her daughter sat there and quietly cried. She said, ‘My mom hasn’t slept like this in weeks and weeks.’”

Because they are people-friendly in a variety of settings, many active or retired show cats make therapy visits, but any cat with a friendly, calm nature can become a therapy cat with the right training. Appropriate handling and socialization in kittenhood, with exposure to many different people, places, sounds and experiences, can help cats develop a therapeutic personality.

Taking Basil to visit people brings special rewards, Parkhurst says. One woman told her, “I wake up smiling on Sundays now because I know I’m going to get to see Basil.”

Parkhurst adds, “To see their faces light up and the love in their eyes when they say something like that, it touches your heart and changes the way you walk through the world.”

Q&A

Do dewclaws

have a purpose?

Q: Why do dogs have dewclaws? I’m talking to a breeder about a puppy, and she says the dewclaws will be removed. Is it better to remove them or keep them? -- via email

A: Dewclaws are small thumb-like appendages that, if a dog has them, are found high on the inside of each paw (on the carpal, or wrist, of the front leg). Certain breeds are distinctive for having double dewclaws on each hind leg. They include the Beauceron, briard, great Pyrenees and Icelandic sheepdog.

The dewclaws are often referred to as vestigial appendages, meaning they no longer serve a purpose, but many dog owners would beg to differ on that subject. Dogs haven’t taken to texting yet (give them time), but they use their dewclaws to grasp and manipulate items such as bones and toys, grip ice or other surfaces to pull themselves out of water, and gently scratch an itchy eye. Dogs doing agility may grasp the sides of the teeter with their dewclaws to steady themselves. And canine speedsters such as whippets and border collies use their dewclaws to corner like race cars.

Now some breeders remove the dewclaws because they don’t see any use for them, and because it can be a painful, bloody mess if your dog tears his dewclaw. Dewclaws that stick out, instead of being tight to the paw, can get caught in carpeting or brush or when dogs go after prey such as lizards in rock piles. Usually the dewclaws are removed when puppies are only a few days old. While painful, it’s not an especially traumatic event, as it would be later in life.

For dogs that do the dew, it’s important to trim the claws regularly to help prevent tearing and the possibility of the dewclaw growing into the footpad. -- Dr. Marty Becker

Do you have a pet question? Send it to askpetconnection@gmail.com or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.

THE BUZZ

Doberman pinscher wins

Beverly Hills dog show

-- A Doberman pinscher named Rip tore away with the Best in Show award at the Kennel Club of Beverly Hills Show, beating out more than 1,200 dogs of 166 breeds and varieties. Formally known as GCHP CH Fidelis Ripcord, Rip also won Best of Breed at Westminster last year, has multiple other Best in Show wins and ranks third among all working group breeds. If you missed the televised show on April 16, look for a repeat April 17 on the USA network and April 23 on NBC.

-- The kooikerhondje is the latest breed to gain recognition by the American Kennel Club, making him eligible to compete in AKC dog shows starting in January. The small red-and-white Dutch dogs, which will be in the sporting group, number about 2,000 to 3,000 throughout the world. People who know them appreciate their fun-loving personality, active nature and quick mind. A fringe of black hairs on the tips of the ears -- known as earrings -- and a plumed white tail are among the kooiker’s standout physical characteristics. Kooikers were originally used to lure ducks for hunters, but these days they excel at more peaceful activities, such as agility, flyball, freestyle, nose work and other dog sports.

-- Some people see dollar signs when they look at their dogs, but not for the same reason as Kathleen Wortham of Costa Mesa, California. Her Newfoundland, Xander, nabbed a stash of cash off her kitchen counter while she was away from home one day. Search as she might, the only evidence was a torn $20 bill in her yard. It happened not once, but twice. Wortham recovered the loot when she was vacuuming the bedroom, where Xander kept his toys near his bedding. A closer look turned up hundreds of dollars in 20s. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

ABOUT PET CONNECTION

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with Vetstreet.com and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.

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