The two therapists do their rounds in fur coats.
Sometimes, they'll stop and doze in a chair next to a patient's bedside. Or they will sit in their laps — and purr.
Diesel and Charlie Girl, two Maine coon purebreds, are among the nation's few registered and trained therapy cats. They practice a special breed of medicine at a Fort Lauderdale hospital and a Miami veterans' nursing home, where residents have been known to forgo scheduled activities to get a dose of feline companionship. The pair still stops traffic in the corridors, even though they've been making regular rounds for almost two years.
Therapy dogs have been seen in care facilities for decades, a natural offshoot of the service animals that guide the blind and fetch for the disabled. But cats? Persnickety, unpredictable, do-it-my-way cats?
Animal behaviorists say it's entirely possible — although it takes a certain kind of kitty.
Cats raised more like dogs and breeds that have an easygoing temperament, such as Maine coons, can make fine therapy animals, said Dr. Lisa Radosta, a West Palm Beach veterinarian who is a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. "For them, being petted or being next to someone warm is rewarding. And their owners are giving them little treats, training them to enjoy the visits," she said. "Of course the cats want to go back."
Oscar, who has lived since he was a kitten in a Rhode Island nursing home's Alzheimer's disease unit, was the subject of a widely reported essay in the NewEngland Journal of Medicine. Dr. David Dosa noted that Oscar had a knack for discerning when patients had only a few hours to live, and would curl up next to them on their beds. Oscar's predictions were so accurate that the staff began alerting family members that death might be near, Dosa said.
Animal behaviorists have pointed out that the essay was not based on a scientific study. And Radosta agreed that other factors, such as things placed in the bed to keep body temperature elevated, probably have more to do with Oscar's behavior than his desire to comfort the dying. "But I still think it's an amazing story," she said.
Cats have bested dogs as America's most popular household pet: There are 73 million pet cats nationwide, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, vs. 68 million dogs. But felines remain a significant minority in the animal therapy movement, a broad term applied to a variety of programs that support contact with animals as way to relieve stress and bring comfort.
Many therapy animals, like Charlie Girl and Diesel, make regularly scheduled visits to hospitals or care facilities, where patients can hold or pet them. Another program has young children struggling with literacy skills read to therapy dogs rather than a teacher, making lessons special and less intimidating. Some nursing homes now have cats or dogs permanently in residence.
The Delta Society, which has evaluated and registered therapy animals since 1990 through its Pet Partners program, today has 206 cats on its rolls, compared to 8,578 dogs. The organization also has certified birds, llamas, rabbits and other animals.
Tom DeCicco, who runs the nonprofit Therapy Dogs of South Florida in Boca Raton, is an evaluator for the Delta Society. He re-certified Diesel and Charlie Girl, and their human partners Bruce and Sue Muntz, several months ago. Delta requires an evaluation every two years.
Delta examiners put potential therapy animals through their paces, squeezing their feet and petting them roughly to simulate how over-excited children or nervous patients might handle them. They watch how the Pet Partner candidates reacted when they ride in elevators, hear loud noises or are picked up by strangers.
"It has to be a special cat to pass the test," DeCicco said. "The main thing is the temperament and aptitude of the animal."
Humans are partially behind the differences between cats and dogs, Radosta said. Dogs usually are socialized when they are puppies through being walked, taken on car rides, and being exposed to different environments and people. Kittens typically get none of this, she said.
That was not the case in the Muntz household. The couple, self-employed computer consultants from Fort Lauderdale, have taken the brother and sister feline pair every place a dog would go, and more. Charlie Girl and Diesel enjoy shopping at home improvement stores (they ride peacefully in a shopping basket's child seat) and having a bite at pet-friendly restaurants. They even swim in the backyard pool, sometimes riding on their own little surf boards.
Their laid-back personalities made them natural for pet therapy, the Muntzes decided.
"We enjoy them, so we wanted to share them with others," said Bruce Muntz. "We see this as a way for us to give back."
But cats have a reputation for being skittish, aloof and not afraid to use their claws. The Muntzes said several hospitals turned them down when they first offered pet therapy visits.
"People are afraid. There are a lot of stories that go along with cats," said Lyn Blank, a certified therapeutic recreation specialist at the Miami VA Medical Center. But she was sold after doing a checkout interview with the Muntz Pet Partners in a busy store.
The cats now are a popular fixture at the center's nursing home, where they go every other week. The Muntzes don't charge for their services. They even have participated in the Veterans Day parade there, riding in their decorated pet strollers.
One elderly man at the nursing home, who was very withdrawn, has gone from ignoring his feline therapists to asking if he can hold them.
"Bruce and Sue will hold the cats until the resident asks, 'Can you put them down? Can I touch them?' It's like a breath of fresh air to see someone who doesn't communicate smile at something a cat does," said Blank.
Things have gone equally well at North Ridge Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, where the cats also visit twice monthly.
"Is he sedated?" asked Stella Garamone, as Diesel curled up on a towel draped over a chair in the visiting room where she was sitting. The Deerfield Beach resident, recovering from hip replacement surgery, tentatively touched the cat's massive head during a recent session. "I've never seen such big cats."
Since the early 1980s, multiple studies have looked at how animal companionship can ease loneliness, agitation and even chronic health conditions like high blood pressure by relieving stress and, in some cases, giving people a sense of purpose by caring for their pets. While some were inconclusive, many in the medical community accept that cats as well as dogs in care settings usually are a good thing, said Dr. Ken Homer, North Ridge's chief medical officer.
"Relieving stress is a good way to help patients heal. Coming to a hospital can be a frightening experience," said Homer, whose hospital just started pet therapy a year ago. "It was a little more of an unknown with the cats. But they have turned out to be just as effective."