By Gael Hannan On
You’ve seen the videos. A dog brings slippers to his human, or becomes delirious with joy and jumps into his owner’s arms after a separation, even if it’s only been for a day.
My cat sits on my slippers and is grumpy when I finally manage to pull them out from under her. When I walk through the door, Nicky and Charlie look up from their nap, acknowledge me with an eye blink (if I’m lucky) and then go back to sleep. And if they do get up, it’s to stretch and make their way to their food dish, where they wait expectantly.
Needless to say, cats don’t top the lists—and frankly seldom make any list, especially official ones—of best service animals. Dogs are the only service animals recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act and felines appear to rank in popularity as service animals far behind dogs, miniature horses, pot-bellied pigs, capuchin monkeys, ferrets, and even boa constrictors. Although I see internet pictures of cats in service vests, and have found the occasional reference to a cat owner training her pet to be of hearing service, there appear to be no official training programs for cats as service animals. Some would say this is because cats aren’t trainable.
But as therapy animals, cats are among the best! Therapy cats and their handlers are trained to assist humans for relaxation and in healing of health issues. As an antidote for loneliness, depression and stress, cats—along with rabbits and guinea pigs—are in high demand by nursing homes as therapy animals. I’m guessing it’s due to their softness, small size and short legs that are not as painfully intrusive as trying to lap-cuddle a Doberman. According to the website raisingtroubledkids.com, cats and other good natured creatures like ferrets, birds, or lizards are therapeutic pets for children struggling with physical, behavioral and developmental disabilities.
And it’s not just seniors and young folks who benefit from a little cat therapy. In a University of Buffalo study (Allen, Izzo, Shykoff, 1999), groups of hypertensive New York stockbrokers who had cats (or dogs) were found to have lower blood pressure and heart rates than those who did not have pets. When they heard of the results, most of the stockbrokers in the non-pet group went out and got one!
Owning a cat could reduce your risk of a heart attack by nearly one third, according to a study released by the American Stroke Association at their 2008 conference. The finding was the main result of a 10-year study of more than 4,000 Americans by researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Stroke Institute in Minneapolis. Interaction with pets relieves stress, which in turn cuts the risk of heart attack, a theory also put forward in an August 2013 article in the Huffington Post, which said that the positive effects on our health are due to the feelings of happiness caused by the release of the oxytocin hormone when we’re around pets. Oxytocin is the hormone directly linked to human bonding and increasing trust and loyalty. Animals, cats included, also release the ‘love hormone’ when they interact with each other and with humans, according to Paul J. Zak, a professor at Claremont Graduate University.
All of these studies assume, of course, that one likes cats. Many people don’t—to the point that being asked to cuddle a cat might bring on heightened stress and anxiety.
Having lived with cats since 1992, I can attest to the oxytocin thing. When I’m edgy, missing somebody or I just need something warm and fuzzy, there’s nothing better to grab than the cat. I’m not discounting the Hearing Husband as a good source of oxytocin, because he is also warm and fuzzy. But a cat fits so nicely into the crook of an arm or in the well of a lap. Doug understands this and we’ve been known to compete for the cuddle services of Nicky who is always up for a good hug or for a chat in the bathtub.
But my cats also help with my communication. To be truthful, they don’t intend to be helpful and the only thing I’ve ever trained them to do is use the litter box, and even that has had spectacular moments of failure. But regardless of intention, they do fill in some information gaps for me.
They hear and react to things that I may not: doorbells, knocks at the door, phones ringing or buzzing, someone entering the house or ‘something moving outside’. When their ears and heads prick up at a sound I haven’t heard, I always check it out, for peace of mind. Many times, I’ve gone to the door because of my cat’s pricked ears and found someone there. This alone qualifies my babies as ‘hearing cats’.
When I’m alone in the house at night, which is rare, they are a comfort. I know they won’t physically save me from a bad guy, and probably won’t even tap me on the face to say “hey, get up, you’re in danger!” But if I’m lucky, the intruder might be highly allergic to cats, have an immediate breakout of hives and race off the premises, scratching wildly, while I sleep peacefully on.
I know that other cat owners receive communication support from their felines, and I would love to hear from you. The relationship between people with hearing loss and their cats is not as well documented as those with hearing dogs, such as Denise Portis and her friend Chloe, But my cats make me happy and if they help me hear, that’s a bonus.