By Rebecca Stares
“Meow,” articulated Haven. The client ignored him. “Meow!” he repeated. Nothing. Haven, an orange tabby with an exceptional personality and gift for being in the right place at the right time, walked right up to our client and bellowed at her, “MEOW!!”
“I think he’s trying to tell me something,” said the client. “Without a doubt,” was the thought that crossed my mind, but I waited for her to continue. “I’m not very good at speaking up when I need to, and I think he’s reminding me of that.” Message received! And how appropriate given the theme of our session was helping our client find her voice and communicate assertively. Once acknowledged, Haven jumped off her lap and curled up on the seat beside her, silent for the remainder of the session.
Haven is more than just a cat and my office mate, he’s also a co-therapist in my animal assisted therapy practice. As a co-therapist, Haven has a unique role in helping our clients develop awareness into their own lives, and in practicing the thoughts and behaviours necessary for change. Clients, ranging in age from four to 84, seek us out for support with anxiety, depression, attachment disorders, behavioural challenges, addiction, divorce, bereavement, life changes, etc. Being quite the gifted co-therapist, Haven offers emotional support, affection, and very clear lessons about boundaries, making requests and personal space, among other things.
While many people think of therapy animals as being dogs and horses rather than cats, Haven easily overcomes any preconceived notions (that cats are aloof, for instance) when he meets you at the door. Haven is integral in rapport building, soothing any initial visit jitters and offering an easy icebreaker into a personal dialogue. He is warm and friendly whether lying belly-up in your lap or curled up on the back of the chair. He models relationship skills while gently reinforcing that relationships are about negotiation and compromise.
When he purrs — and you can’t miss it because it is quite loud — it not only demonstrates affection but provides positive validation regarding your engagement. You will always know when your relationship skills and communication skills are up to par, as cats, and particularly Haven, don’t respond well to coercion of any kind. (Bribery will only work if provide the tastiest morsels.)
What I love about cats as co-therapists is that you can’t hide your emotions from them. Haven responds to clients’ feelings and helps both the clients and myself access and attend to them. Most impressively, Haven does this while offering unconditional acceptance of who you are. Best co-therapist ever!