Sunday, July 15, 2007

Can cats become service animals that would help with seizures?

Service animals could use a little affirmative action.Dogs, after all, dominate the world when it comes to being officially recognized human helpers. They accompany the blind, the deaf, the diabetic, the disabled. They provide balance support, alert to oncoming seizures, pick up on when a diabetic handler's blood sugar has dropped. They are ubiquitous.

But other animals also perform some of these roles, says Pat Gonser of Citronelle, Ala., founder of Pets and People: Companions in Therapy & Service ( Miniature horses, after all, are fast becoming accepted "mobility alternatives" for the visually impaired. And the law doesn't disallow such seemingly unorthodox aides: Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, all service animals - not just guide dogs - must be allowed access to public facilities and transportation.

"Some people don't like dogs, but they need a service animal," says Gonser, a former cat breeder and retired registered nurse who started doing therapy work with one of her retired Somali cats in the early 1990s. "Many cats do alert" when something atypical, such as an asthma attack, is imminent. "It's just that people don't realize it," she continues.

"But once you start tracking it, you might notice that the cat is doing something right before, such as pawing at you, or sitting on your chest."(An aside about semantics: Service animals are an entirely different breed than therapy animals: The former do a prescribed job for a disabled individual; the latter provide companionship or emotional support, which, while therapeutic, is not a specific task.)Because there is no organization that trains service cats, Gonser's group provides guidance for owners who want to train their own. Starting with a kitten is best; pedigree is immaterial. With clicker training - in which a small hand-held noisemaker is used to "mark" a desired behavior - a cat can be taught to alert, for example, to the arrival of a seizure.

Like dogs, Gonser says, cats have an "innate sense" - likely spurred by biochemical changes we cannot perceive - of when seizures are coming on. Kitties also can be taught to hit a preprogrammed number on a large-button phone if an owner falls and cannot call for help."It gets to be a little bit difficult because people don't recognize service cats," Gonser says, adding that groups like hers help document bona-fide service animals.Still, black sheep slip through. Consider a 300-pound Vietnamese potbellied pig whose owner had a heart condition and said she needed her as a "therapeutic companion pet" for stress relief.

In 2000, Charlotte left her first-class berth on a US Airways flight, tried to enter the cockpit, refused to leave the galley until a passenger bribed her with food - and left dozens of "When Pigs Fly" headlines in her wake.Regardless of their species, service animals "have to be polite in public and not intrude in other people's space," Gonser says. "And they have to be attentive to the person" they are helping.Some skeptics think cats are not inclined to such selflessness. "Certainly, some cats might circle around and really make it obvious to whoever else is there that there was a problem because they can sense the fluctuations in the energy," says feline behavior consultant Carole Wilbourn of Manhattan.

"But I don't know that they could be trained to do it on command, because you know what cats are like."Gayle Knowlton, 49, of Tucson, Ariz., trained her first service cat more than a decade ago. Her most current one is Pushette Pudie - named for her less-than-shy demeanor - who Knowlton rescued at four days old from a drainage ditch during a downpour."I suffer from severe anxiety and panic attacks, and I have seizures because of it," explains Knowlton, who didn't want a service dog because, at the time, she was a vendor at cat shows, and the species shock would have been too much for her customers. When Pushette detects an impending seizure, "she becomes extremely guarded and won't let anyone near us, and she strokes my face and gets me to focus directly on her."

This can often avert a seizure, Knowlton adds, because the interaction lowers her blood pressure.Still, training a service cat can be more challenging than your average golden retriever. "Cats are a harder package to put together," Knowlton concedes. "You have to get one that's not afraid of anything, and who will listen. And she needs to be unobtrusive - if I bring Pushette to a restaurant, she needs to stay in her basket," which is attached to Knowlton's motorized wheelchair.

Given their felines' less-than-mainstream standing in the service community, owners often retrofit toy-dog vests for them, emblazoned with the words "Service Cat." Pushette, true to form, has taken that to the limit. Knowlton says that since she was entered in a Halloween contest dressed as a French schoolgirl, complete with pinafore panties, Pushette insists on dressing in public. "The minimum I can get away with with her," she says, "is a hat and glasses."Service with style, you might say.


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