By Anne Hayden
Sarah Worden, an East Berne resident, found her cat, Balely, nestled in the hay at Van Etten Farm in Altamont. In fact, she found a litter of four kittens hidden in a hay wagon when she was helping out at the farm.
All four cats — the other three owned by relatives or neighbors of Worden’s — have hay-related names.
Now, a little more than a year later, Worden takes Balely to a local nursing home and to the Military Courtesy Room at the Albany International Airport, where the cat happily interacts with people who are overjoyed to see her. Starting this summer, she hopes to take Bayley to group therapy sessions for children with cancer.
Worden trained Balely to wear a harness and walk on a leash, and the cat also understands the commands “sit” and “stay.”
“She loved to be out and about, and she was always curious and wanted to be around people,” said Worden, of what motivated her to start training Balely as a therapy cat. She was further inspired when she encountered a woman who did therapy with her dog.
Part of Balely’s training was also influenced by her Worden’s boyfriend, Michael China, who never wanted a cat, but a dog, instead.
“He told me that we could get a cat if we could make it dog-like,” Worden said.
In addition to teaching Balely simple commands, Worden had to make sure that the cat would not react to having her tail, ears, or paws played with, and that things like walkers and wheelchairs would not scare her.
“The women at the nursing home love to pull on the tufts of fur between her toes, because it’s so soft and fluffy, and she doesn’t even care,” Worden said.
Most of the other people she has met or talked to locally, who are involved in pet therapy, are participating with their dogs, she said, which makes Balely unique.
There is some research, however, that proves cats can be beneficial in ways that dogs aren’t.
Dr. Adnan Qureshi, with the Department of Neurology at the University of Minnesota, studied the connection between cat ownership and the risk of fatal cardiovascular diseases.
Adnan observed 2,435 people, who presently or previously owned cats, over an average period of 13 years, and events of stroke, brain hemorrhage, and heart attack were recorded among the participants.
The results of the study showed that there was a significantly lower rate of death due to heart attack and stroke in participants who had a history of cat ownership compared with those who had never owned a cat.
“We found an independent association between cat ownership and the risk of fatal MIs in the present cohort study,” wrote Qureshi, of myocardial infarctions, or heart attacks, in his discussion of the research. “The protective effect may be related to a spontaneous relaxing effect with buffering effect on autonomic reactivity to acute stressors, and/or classical conditioning of relaxing response.”
He noted that the same effect was not seen with dogs, although both dogs and cats did lower blood pressure and heart rate.
Cathie Witzel, Qureshi’s administrative assistant, said, “The mechanism of the protection is not really understood.”
“Acquisition of cats as domestic pets may represent a novel strategy for reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease in high-risk individuals,” Qureshi’s study concluded.
Witzel said she suspected that Qureshi’s decision to study the health benefits of cat ownership stemmed from his affection for his own cats.
“He has two gigantic, much, much beloved cats,” she said. “I don’t think he was surprised by the results of the study, but I think he was very pleased.”
Worden was not expecting the results she got from her therapy cat.
She said she most often visits the dementia units in nursing homes, and recalls a resident who was largely uncommunicative and emotionless, but whose face would light up when she saw Baley. She would also talk to the cat when she wouldn’t talk to anyone else.
A therapy cat is also different from a therapy dog in one significant way, said Worden, in that an elderly person hard of hearing can feel a cat purring, and be soothed by it.
In the Military Courtesy Room at the airport, Baley visits with soldiers, who may be heading off for active duty, or dealing with a long layover between flights. The cat typically roams around the room, rubbing up against people, sitting on their laps, and purring, said Worden.
“I really didn’t think it would work as well as it has, not just for other people, but for us, too,” Worden said. “Balely needs to be social or else she gets restless, and I feel good about myself after helping people.”