Each morning when she wakes up, Juanita Mengel removes the silicone liner of her prosthetic leg out from under a heated blanket so that the metal parts of the artificial limb don’t feel as cold on her skin when she straps the pieces together.
The 67-year-old Amanda, Ohio, resident then does the same for her 5-year-old dilute tortoiseshell cat, Lola-Pearl, who is missing her left hind leg.
The duo is one of an estimated 200 therapy cat teams registered in the U.S. through Pet Partners. The nonprofit sets up owners and their pets as volunteer teams providing animal-assisted interventions, where they might visit hospitals, nursing homes or schools to aid in therapy and other activities to improve well-being in communities.
“A therapy animal is an animal who’s been assessed based on their ability to meet new people and not just tolerate the interaction, but actively enjoy it,” said Taylor Chastain Griffin, the national director of animal-assisted interventions advancement at the organization.
Pet Partners registers nine different species as therapy animals: dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, guinea pigs, rats, birds, mini pigs, and llamas and alpacas.
As part of her research, Chastain Griffin studies the impact of therapy cats and argues more research needs to be done. There’s abundant research on other therapy animals like dogs, she said, but there’s often a “shock factor” involved with therapy cats because many don’t know they exist.
“They go into a setting and people are like, ‘Whoa, there’s a cat on a leash. What’s happening?’” Chastain Griffin said. “It kind of inspires people to connect in a way we haven’t traditionally heard talked about in other therapy animal interventions.”
Mengel said she knew Lola-Pearl would be a good therapy cat after she brought her on a whim to an amputee coalition conference about a month after she adopted the domestic shorthair.
“She was so good with people I just knew she would be a good therapy cat,” Mengel said. “People really were attracted to her, too.”
During a recent visit to a limb loss support group meeting, Mengel pushed Lola-Pearl around in a stroller — labeled “Therapy Cat” — so attendees could pet the kitty as she woke up from a nap.
Whether she was sitting in the stroller, walking in between participants’ legs or cuddling on their laps, Lola-Pearl brought a smile to whoever she decided was worthy of her attention in that moment.
“She’s very intuitive of people,” Mengel said.
Lola-Pearl isn’t the only cat in Mengel’s life; the former traveling nurse who lost her left leg in 2006 after years of surgeries following a near-fatal car accident is a mother to seven felines, most of which have disabilities.
“They find you, you don’t find them,” she said.
Lola-Pearl was found at only a few weeks old with her back legs completely twisted together. She was unable to walk and brought to a friend of Mengel’s at an animal shelter in Missouri, where veterinarians could not help her. The shelter found specialists in Iowa who were able to splint Lola-Pearl’s legs as an attempt to save them, but they decided her left hind leg needed to be amputated.
Meanwhile, Mengel had been in talks with her friend in Missouri about adopting the cat, and after Lola-Pearl healed from surgery, Mengel officially adopted her.
Despite the obstacles Mengel has been through, she exudes a spirit of gratitude for Lola-Pearl and for the work they do together.
“It’s a really rewarding experience,” she said, “I get just as much out of it as the people that I visit.”
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