TINKERBELLE REMEMBERS: A series about Tinkerbelle, Registered Pet Partner Therapy Cat (retired) and our journey together
When I took the scraggly, emaciated, sickly old cat into foster from the shelter, I knew right away there was something different about her. Even with one eye swollen closed and her long fur so sparse on her haunches she looked like she’d been shaved, her inner beauty shone through. Affectionate and sweet, she loved to be held, and I found myself carrying her around the house like a baby. As she lay in my arms, safe and purring, I began to think this might be the one.
I’d often thought how sad it would be for a cat person to live out their years in a place with no cats! Since my parents went into assisted living and I met my first registered therapy cat, I’d been looking for a cat who could do that precious work. At first it was merely a thought: “I’d love to be able to bring a cat to the catless.” I didn’t know how to do it, only that it was something that needed to be done.
I’d begun fostering sick cats for the Oregon Humane Society and realized it was the perfect way to find my potential therapy cat. Unfortunately none of the cats I fostered could quite fit the bill. Many were shy, and a few were aggressive. Some hated car travel or getting into the carrier. Most didn’t take the the leash and halter, flopping onto the ground as if stunned. Some were sweet and gentle but hated my other cats and wouldn’t have fitted into my family.
Over the next 5 years, I searched. Every time I took a cat into foster, I’d gently test him. I did more research and became familiar with Pet Partners, formerly the Delta Society which was formed in 1977 right here in Portland, Oregon. I learned what it would take to be a happy therapy cat. I fostered over 40 cats during that time, all great kitties, but none seemed to be the One.
It began to look like I’d never find that special cat…
2. I found her.
One day I got the call to foster Tinkerbelle, a 10-year-old stray who had been brought into the shelter. She had URI and an eye infection, very common in shelter cats. She had also been starved for some time and needed to build back up to a normal kitty weight.
This is what I wrote in my “Book of Fosters”:
“TINKERBELLE, 06/01/2011: Tinkerbelle is a tiny longhaired pixie of a cat. She’s 10 and the size of a kitten. Besides her URI, she wasn’t eating at the shelter. I found that she is a social eater and particularly likes to eat on the computer table while I work. She is so loving. How can someone abandon a cat like her? But now she’ll be embarking on a sweet new journey with people who’ll love her forever.
06/13/2011: She really is a social eater! I walk in the room and she goes for her kibbles. When she’s done, she puts a paw on my shoulder and curls up in my lap. Yesterday she met the other cats with no problem. Tink is quiet now.”
3. Is this the one?
I’m not sure the exact moment I knew Tinkerbelle would make a great therapy cat. Maybe it was when I had my 4 grandchildren over and let them hold her and pass her from one to another while she purred the whole while. Maybe it was because she loved to be held and carried. Maybe it was her unflappability- nothing fazed her, not the clatter of dishes, the loud TV, even the vacuum wasn’t a problem for little Tinkerbelle.
She quickly grew fit and strong. Her eye infection cleared and we could finally see those beautiful golden eyes. The URI cleared as well. It was time to take her back to the shelter.
Even though she would bring our family cat count up to 4, we decided this little girl wasn’t going anywhere. She would live out her forever life with us. I would look further into the realities of her becoming a therapy cat. If it worked out, that would be a bonus to the gift of her sweet presence in our lives.
4. The journey begins.
While Tinkerbelle got used to her new home, her new people, and her 3 new kitty siblings, I set about learning how to turn her into a therapy cat. There are several groups that register cats for Animal Assisted Interaction (AAI). The one I knew the most about was Pet Partners, formerly the Delta Society, which began right here in the Pacific Northwest. I googled Pet Partners and got good information on how to register from a Pet Partners YouTube Video on their website. Since I volunteer for OHS which has a Pet Partners chapter, I had help answering my questions. And there were a lot of them:
Why do I need to be registered with a group such as Pet Partners?
- How do I get my TC registered?
2. Does she need any special training?
3. Does she have to take a test?
4. How much does it cost?
At OHS, I was able to take a class that covered the big book of Pet Partners. Here are the answers:
1. Registering with a group provides training, experience, and most of all, insurance in case something goes wrong.
2. Aside from a calm and pleasant personality, cats don’t require special training; they must, however, be accustomed to a harness and leash and deal well with travel and new situations.
3. Cats do have to take a test which simulates things they might run into on a visit, such as a dog, noisy people, the clatter of a hospital. They will be passed between strangers to sit on their laps and petted clumsily as someone might at an institution.
4. It costs over $100 for the 2-year registration, but the money goes to keep Pet Partners going, and for me, it was worth every penny to know I had the group behind me at all times.
On test day, I took Tinkerbelle to OHS where the testing was to be done. Both of us were well-groomed and looked our best for the judges. (Pet Partners humans are required to dress nicely and to always give a good impression of the group.) Tink was bathed, teeth cleaned, claws clipped, and brushed until her long black fur shone. I was nervous; she was not.
The test was made up of simulated real-life situations we might encounter on a routine visit. Volunteers helped act out scenes such as you might find in a hospital, school, or assisted living facility. I held Tinkerbelle in my arms while someone dropped a metal tray and talked loudly. Someone else walked by with a dog. Three people handed Tinkerbelle between them and she was required to sit quietly for 30 seconds on each lap. Tinkerbelle excels at sitting on laps so she had no trouble there.
The judges observed me as well. They made sure I never let go of her leash, watched how I related to the “patients”, and took note of how I interacted with Tinkerbelle as each new situation arose. With Pet Partners, your therapy animal is your first and foremost concern.
Needless to say, Tink passed with flying colors. It was a little funny because most of the judges had only judged dogs before. On that day, she became 1 of only 3 registered AAI cats in the city of Portland. She always knew how special she was!
6. Finding our way.
Yay! We passed the test so Tinkerbelle and I were official registered Pet Partners with a plastic ID card for me and a nice shinny badge for Tink.
Now what? Pet Partners teams go many different places such as schools, libraries, hospitals, nursing homes, prisons, and more. I needed to decide which direction I wanted to take. Though all are worthy causes, I chose assisted living facilities. I enjoy older people and understand the heartache of leaving behind a cherished cat because you no longer are able to care for them.
As the one thing was decided, a whole new set of questions came to light. How do I find places to visit? What do I say when I get there? What if Tink gets anxious (or I get anxious, for that matter)? Luckily Pet Partners has nice, knowledgeable supervisors who could help with that.
I was given a list of possible facilities and a familiar name popped out, a place I had visited for another reason. I got hold of the activities director, and before I knew it, we’d made a date. That was so easy I called a second place, and they wanted us too. I was happy, excited. I felt like calling some more but wisely stopped myself from overcommitting. After all, Tink and I had yet to take our maiden voyage.
7: The First Visit.
The first of anything is always a little scary. Things usually turn out okay though, and in the case of my first Pet Partners visit with Tinkerbelle, that was certainly the case.
Actually there were two visits: one, with a hospice patient; the other, an assisted living facility.
I had already been volunteering for a hospice program called Pet Peace Of Mind, which provides assistance with patients’ pets such as cleaning and exercise, but going in with a therapy animal was a whole other story. Unlike PPOM, I was suddenly in the spotlight, interacting with the patient while Tink did her cat thing. Luckily our first patient was of optimistic temperament and excited to have a cat visit.
The assisted living visit was very different from the one-on-one with the hospice patient. Tink and I checked in with the activities director who gave us a list of folks to see. Some were in their rooms and some in the common room where I took Tink around like show-and-tell. Tinkerbelle loved being carried and enjoyed the attention, for about an hour; then she would show me she was tired and we would go home with happy memories of bringing a little furry joy into people’s hearts.
8: Learning the Ins and Outs.
When presenting with a Therapy Cat, one must expect the unexpected, be prepared for changes, and go with the flow. Assisted living facilities house a diverse mix of people, and I soon discovered I had to be ready for anything, from cat lovers who would accost us in the hallways to cat haters who scream at the sight of a feline. This is what I learned:
Ask upon entering a room if anyone is allergic or cat-phobic. Only when everyone is comfortable would we mingle.
Sometimes people pet too enthusiastically or even roughly; if that happens, quietly disengage Tinkerbelle.
Dementia sufferers may need a little guidance before they recall the comfort of petting a cat, but the result is worth the effort.
Many people want to feed or give treats. Explain that it’s against the rules (for several reasons, including the health of the cat) and politely decline.
Most important of all, when Tinkerbelle tells me she’s had enough, we say our fond goodbyes until next time.
9: We did too much.
When Tinkerbelle and I first began volunteering, I went a little crazy. There were so many places that needed a cat visit: assisted living, nursing homes, hospitals, hospice, and special events and requests. I tried to stick with places close to home, meaning shorter trips for Tink, but even so, the choices were endless and it was so hard to say no.
We went many places and visited many people. Tink was a good sport but I could tell she was getting tired. It’s not just the time spent with the patients, but also getting ready: the bath, grooming, brushing of teeth, etc. Not Tink’s favorite part of the deal.
One thing they teach us in Pet Partners is that the animal’s needs come first. I finally narrowed it down to weekly visits to 2 local assisted living facilities and one hospice patient. Tinkerbelle was okay with that schedule and began to look forward to her hour with the people who loved her.
10: Losing a Patient.
The thing about hospice work is the inevitable loss of a patient. I knew this logically but when the time came to say goodbye to our first friend, it was difficult for both Tinkerbelle and me.
Tink had enjoyed her ongoing visits to see Carol. Carol was a true cat person and Tink loved lying on her bed, the old hands caressing her soft fur while the humans talked about all sorts of things, including cats of Carol’s past. When we suddenly stopped the trips in the carrier to the comfortable, friendly bed and Carol’s gentle touch, Tinkerbelle was confused. How do you explain to a cat that we would never go there again?
It was a sad time, but my volunteer coordinator helped me through, and I helped Tinkerbelle. We were gentle to ourselves. After a while, a new hospice patient came along and we were caught up in another life story.
11: The man who had never petted a cat.
When Tinkerbelle and I answered the call to visit a new patient, we knew it would be something special – it always was – but we had no idea when we entered that nursing home room just how special this visit would be.
Art had never petted a cat before. It was hard for me to believe. To not have had a family cat is one thing, but to have never in what looked to be a very long life touched a feline seemed impossible.
Yet it was true. Art had grown up in rural Germany, where cats were barn animals and extremely feral. Bashful and smiling, the nonagenarian needed instructions… “You place your hand on her head, just so. Smooth down the back gently, so.” He did it, remarking how soft she was, how beautiful.
While Art told me of his childhood far away and long ago, he continued to pet Tinkerbelle. He was a natural.
One day, Tinkerbelle and I got an email from our local Pet Partners office asking if we’d mind being shadowed. We replied we would enjoy the opportunity.
Being shadowed means having someone come along with us on visits to watch what we do. Usually it’s someone who aspires to have a therapy cat of their own or someone new to Pet Partners who wants to see how we go about our presentations, but this was different. The pretty lady that greeted us at the door was getting her degree as a Cat Behaviorist, and part of her training was to go out on real calls and get to know what our therapy cats were like.
Marci and I went on several visits to the assisted living facility. She asked a lot of questions, got to know Tinkerbelle, and even helped me carry Tinkerbelle from room to room. She enjoyed the residents and appreciated the interactions they had with Tink. I enjoyed her enthusiastic company and insights into cat behavior. Tinkerbelle enjoyed her pets. It was all win-win.
Marci went on to become one of the foremost cat behaviorists in the Portland Oregon area, Feline Behavior Solutions. We are still good friends even though Tink has since retired.
13: Frequently asked question.
Now that Tinkerbelle and I were getting the hang of being Pet Partners, we found that many people were interested in what we did. Some were the people we visited and others were friends and acquaintances who heard about our therapy work. They began to ask questions. This was always number one:
What is the difference between a Therapy Animal, a Service Animal, and an Emotional Support Animal?
Therapy animals like Tinkerbelle provide affection and comfort to people in facilities such as hospitals, retirement homes, and schools. These pets have a special aptitude for interacting with members of the public and enjoy doing so. Therapy animal owners volunteer their time to visit with their animal in the community.
Assistance Animals, or “service” animals, are most commonly dogs or miniature horses trained to aid people with disabilities. These include guide dogs for the blind, hearing dogs for the deaf, and dogs who to provide mobility assistance or communicate medical alerts. They are considered working animals, not pets.
Emotional Support Animals, sometimes also referred to as a “comfort” animal, are pets who provide therapeutic support to a person with mental illness. To be designated as an emotional support animal, the pet must be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional.
Keep up with TINKERBELLE REMEMBERS, The Finding of a Therapy Cat on the first Monday of every month at the Therapy Cats Facebook page, a page dedicated to feline-assisted therapy and interaction.
Therapy cats are cats that provide benefits to humans outside of their own family and can include emotional and mental enrichment, physical therapy, and many other roles. Feline-assisted therapy teams work in libraries, nursing homes, retirement centers, schools, community centers, to name but a few. Feline-assisted therapy teams consist of at least one human and one cat, and can also work in teams and even with other animals.