Iris and Thula’s story has inspired many parents to think about a cat as a therapy animal in their own homes so here are some thoughts and practical advice that may help.
Choosing a kitten or rescue cat
It is important to understand the type of character you are looking for, what you want to achieve and why, before your search begins. For us, we wanted a highly sociable cat who would encourage Iris to play and explore new things.
So a lap cat that sleeps all day and wants strokes wouldn’t cut it for our needs. However, for another family who wants to encourage quiet chill time that maybe the perfect cat for them. The same goes with the choice between a kitten or older cat, think about if your child would like a bouncy playful kitten or would that upset them. For some children on the spectrum the unpredictable movement of a kitten maybe too much for them, whereas a settled older cat might be far more relaxing. Think long and hard about what you are looking for and why, I can’t emphasise this enough as it really is key to finding a good partnership. Certain breeds of cat will carry characteristics and attributes that will suit different roles that you would like them to be for your family. Research what would suit you and your child and ask if you can have them on trial first as some cat rehoming centres will allow you to do this.
Harness, Leads & Collars
I personally don’t like the thought of a collar on a cat 24/7 as it may get caught causing problems. If you want to introduce a harness and lead I would advise to do it in the early days, little and often. Pick a harness that has more material parts so it spreads the pressure and is more comforting and comfortable for the cat. Try it on at home where the cat loves to be the most and pair it up with playing with their favourite toy. Make their time in the harness fun and only for short periods of time at first and build on that. The same with the lead, most cats will need a great deal of time and encouragement to walk on a lead and this will have to be worked on slowly.
Indoor or Outdoor
This is such a personal choice that depends on many factors, your own home, garden and environment. Safety concerns like roads and heavy traffic will determine how comfortable you feel with letting your cat roam freely outdoors. Of course, it’s possible to add gates, high fencing to more or less cat proof your garden. Remember, they are agile, intelligent creatures and ultimately the best escape artists you will ever come across. They are naturally curious as all great hunters are and if they want to explore and be adventurous they will. Studies have proven that on average a cat will roam no further than 100 metres from their home but if you live in a town or city that will be a worrying thought.
We have made a choice to allow Thula to be free and trust that she will be careful. It is very important for her own wellbeing to have time to be a cat, to run, jump, climb, hunt, to use all of her senses in the environment that they were designed to be in. With large solid wooden gates at the entrance of the property I feel happy in the knowledge that at least that problem area has been dealt with. She has free access to fields and farmland at the back of our garden and she does have a large roaming area there. We have come across her hunting on our walks with Iris many fields away from the house but she always comes home and as soon as she sees us she joins us to go back.
Our way of life here includes open windows, doors, outdoor living and the animals coming and going as they please with even the goats joining us in the kitchen. It simply wouldn’t be possible for me to lock Thula up inside during the day due to Iris’s love of the outside. So fit in how you are with the animals with your lifestyle choices. I made the decision that what we could do was to lock her in at night to reduce risks and that has worked for us very well so far.
I believe they will follow you as long as there is respect and understanding. Some cats I’m sure will thrive on an indoor life if they are provided enough attention and activities while others need to be free. Think of our own choices, some of us love snuggling up on the sofa and watching films all weekend, nice and warm…while others climb mountains in the wild winds. We are unique characters, they are unique too.
Many of you will have seen pictures and film with Thula riding happily in the car and on our bikes. This was, like most things, to do with my approach – a slow introduction with lots of encouragement and positive reinforcement. It’s not something that I would suggest you do with every animal. It could be very dangerous for them if they are not confident yet, but if introduced carefully it can be a lot of fun for both you and your cat.
We started with very short car journeys when she was a young kitten, usually around the village twice a day. This helped Thula get used to sitting on Iris’s lap and she became more comfortable, so we could we gradually lengthen these outings.
It was a similar method with the basket on the bike. At first I would let her explore the basket while it was on the kitchen floor, after all it was rather like a box and what cat can resist getting into a box. Then I moved it outside and put it in a place where I knew she loved, this was Iris’s tree stump and she jumped inside the basket. It was introduced in a way that made it her choice to get inside which I feel is critical when you are working with a cat. Then eventually I carried her around in it, got her used to the motion, before finally adding it on the bikes and did little trips.
I feel that we shouldn’t hold onto ideas, thoughts or expectations when we bring a new animal into our lives. It can stop us living in the moment with them. Some of the most powerful moments between Iris and Thula weren’t led by me, they happened between them through intuition and I learnt so much by observing their relationship. There won’t be another like it, their bond is unique and the experiences between other kids and their pets will be too. Iris is now able to build relationships with others, they are different to what she has with Thula but these advances are brilliant and I’m very thankful to our special feline friend.
Next time I will discuss ideas about how you can encourage a bond between your child and the animal. Suggestions for games and how to involve the cat in your child’s early learning.
But for now if you would like to learn more about our story and haven’t read ‘Iris Grace’ here is the book
Photography by Arabella Carter-Johnson