Perfectly Stress Free: A Virtual Cat Therapy Event

Ever since the pandemic hit last spring, most (if not all) pet therapy work has come to a halt. As a result, numerous seniors and students have been missing out on the benefits of therapy pets, including reduction of stress, lowering of blood pressure, improvement of mood, and an opening up of communication lines. And, for their part, therapy pets have been missing out on their ability to give love and to fulfill a purpose. The longer the pandemic has lasted, however,  the more often organizations that offer pet therapy have been thinking outside the box. Case in point is the recent live-streamed cat therapy event held by the University of Florida Counseling and Psychological Services, which Rainy and I were delighted to participate.

Perfectly Stress Free was organized by Dr. Jade Garneau-Fournier and Dr. Rosie Garcia and was hosted by Paul Kelly of UCF-CAPS. It featured the Pet Alliance of Florida and four therapy cat teams. This was the first time that the event was held virtually, which allowed the organizers to invite teams from across the United States.

To start the event, attendees introduced themselves and their cats. Carin works with Pet Alliance, Orlando’s oldest and largest non-profit animal welfare agencies. It operates two pet adoption shelters, low-cost Veterinary clinics, and a full range of community outreach programs. Carin showed a few of their available kittens.

Christine is the owner of Piper and Frankie, lives in Central Florida, and is a disabled veteran. She and her cat Piper had to go through a regimented routine to become certified. The two have been doing cat therapy work for four years and their focus is on veterans. Piper has an additional special gift of being able to alert Christine when her blood pressure increases.

Erica is the owner of Nugget, lives in Central Florida, and is a student of UCF. She got started in cat therapy after benefitting from the services of UCF-CAPS. From the time Erica got Nugget as a kitten, she took him with her on outings, and so he was a natural for being a therapy cat.

Patty is the owner of Mokie and lives in San Francisco. The two have been doing therapy work for 13 years. Mokie grew up doing therapy work and is Patty said he is considered to be an expert in his region, having been much anywhere a cat can visit. She believes he’s the first therapy cat to offer services in airports, having started in 2017. Widget is Mokie’s little sister and has been doing therapy work for that past few years. She’s already been following in his footsteps with regards to the diversity of places she has visited.

After everyone’s introductions, each cat therapy handler shared the process they underwent to become certified. They also talked about how their cats interact with other animals such as dogs, and they answered other on-the-spot questions. For example, attendees were asked if therapy cats would make good show cats, which sparked some differences of opinion. Midway through the event, the two psychologists interjected a few stress-reduction tips, and host Kelly posted cat trivia challenges. To wrap up the event, each attendee was invited to share where listeners could find the therapy teams online.

I appreciated how well-organized but also casual the Perfectly Stress Free event was. Attendees were all invited to send info ahead of time. None of the teams needed to have our cats on hand for the one-hour duration of the event, but we were simply asked that our therapy cats would occasionally make an appearance. Rainy is adjusting to remote therapy work, and so this arrangement worked for her. Beyond that, teams were free to participate as much as or as little as they wanted. This allowed me as an introvert to feel comfortable attending a live event.

Other than the virtual visits that we do through Pets Together, Rainy and I have not been able to do any therapy work since the start of the pandemic. It is heartbreaking for me to continue to hear of the deaths of patients we used to visit regularly, and other cat therapy teams have expressed the same sentiment. While we still miss being able to bring in-person happiness to others, it was meaningful to know that we might have brightened the lives of students by being part of UCF-CAP’s Perfectly Stress event.

Stay tuned for upcoming interviews with some of the attendees of this event. In addition, Perfectly Stress Free will be held again this fall, and I encourage you to support it. If you have a cat therapy team, contact the organizers about participating Otherwise, simply tune in, enjoy, and share.

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