New therapy is the cat's meow

CAROL McGRAW Updated: December 25, 2011 at 12:00 am • Published: December 25, 2011

 You’ve heard about therapy dogs — canines taken to hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and such to spread a bit of cheer.

But how about a therapy cat?

There are only a handful of certified therapy cats in Colorado, and one of them lives in Colorado Springs.

Her name is Piglet. Besides having an unusual job, she is unusual in another way: she’s a hairless, lavender Sphinx. Some think that with her chenille-like head, she looks a bit like E.T. or Yoda.

You’d think Piglet would get a bit chilly making her rounds of hospitals, care centers and clinics. but owner Debbie Polelli wouldn’t allow that. When Piglet arrived at Village at Skyline to visit the residents she was decked out in a red-and-white holiday sweater and her pet therapy jacket. Apparently she has a wardrobe that is said to put Lady Gaga to shame.

“She doesn’t lack for anything,” says Polelli.

Piglet arrived like the unruffled diva she is, albeit on a leash. There had been no feline fits in the car, no blood curdling MEEOWWS that cat owners everywhere dread when transporting their cats. Not Piglet. She loves car rides.

In the lobby she sat regally in her pet stroller, her bright eyes tracking the birds in the enclosed aviary while everyone else was eyeing her.

“Is that a cat?” someone asked.

Sometimes she is mistaken for a Chihuahua.

Piglet has visited Skyline several times and has quite a fan base.

“Ladies, we have a special visitor. Say hello,” Lindsey Roberts, Skyline activity assistant, announced to the dozen women seated in a lounge area.

“Oh my goodness, aren’t you a nice cat. Bless your little heart,” a woman seated in a wheelchair said, as Piglet sat quietly on her lap. “What kind is she?” she asked while stroking Piglet’s lavender coat.

Another exclaimed, “Goodness sakes alive. She is clean.”

One by one the women took turns holding Piglet, some cradling her like a baby. Piglet’s presence spurs some of them to talk animatedly and recall pets they have owned.

“Did you see the smiles,” Roberts asked as Piglet headed to another unit. “That is why we have pet therapy.”

Kathleen Kelley, Delta Society pet therapy instructor, said such visits reap many social, emotional and physical benefits. The interaction with a pet can lower a person’s blood pressure and reduce anxiety and stress.

“The animals can take a patient’s mind off pain, provide comfort, and can even boost the immune system.”

Kelley said therapy animals are being used not only in hospitals and senior residences, but juvenile correction facilities, churches, special needs programs, schools, and veterans groups.

Polelli says, “Sometimes I have to hold back tears when visiting. I see so many good things.”

It was rather serendipitous the way Piglet and Polelli teamed up. Polelli, who is a county environmental health specialist, had a couple of cats and wanted another rescue, particularly a sphinx because they are so gregarious and friendly. She found a woman who rescues the cats. She had found Piglet in a shelter.

When Polelli picked Piglet up in Estes Park she was dreading the four-hour drive home. “It was strange. She was really calm and didn’t freak out like cats do.” A few weeks later, she took Piglet to a party at her mother’s house.

“Piglet scoped out the room like a human, and mingled with different groups.”

Soon after, Polelli was watching a TV program about therapy animals. “I thought, ‘I bet Piglet could do that.’”

And so she could.

Polelli went through a two-day animal assisted therapy training workshop sponsored by the American Humane Association. (It no longer holds the classes.) Then Piglet and Polelli were evaluated and certified.

“It takes a particular cat. Few can do it because they are skittish, especially around strangers. They have to want to do the work.” says Kelley. Dogs are the most common therapy animals, but Kelley has seen ponies and even guinea pigs.

Piglet’s temperament, aptitude, obedience and relational skills were tested. She was put through a mock trial run to see how she reacted to loud noises, distracting toys, clumsy petting and awkward holding. Another skill is to walk past a dog and not react.

“That disqualifies a lot,” Kelley notes.

Polelli says Piglet has never acted up on a visit. In fact, the cat seems to thrive on attention. But Polelli watches carefully to make sure Piglet doesn’t get tired, hungry or stressed. If so, she stops the visiting.

They recently did a three-hour session at a health clinic in Denver where children were getting vaccinations. They regularly visit Evans Hospital at Fort Carson through auspices of the American Red Cross. Piglet also volunteers for the “Paws to Read”program at the Pikes Peak Library District.

Piglet’s training continues. She has learned to touch a stick for a treat and to walk through an agility tunnel. She is learning to give high-fives.

Contact Carol McGraw: 636-0371 Twitter @mcgrawatgazette Facebook Carol McGraw

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