Wendy Panaro wasn’t looking for a cat when Dexter entered her life in 2008.

A neighborhood couple had adopted the year old gray cat from the Wisconsin Humane Society in 2007. An overseas work opportunity arose a year later so Dexter needed a new home. Panaro stepped in and welcomed the handsome gray cat into her life.

As Dexter settled in, Panaro noticed his laid back attitude and gentle manners. An article about cats as pet therapists grabbed her attention so she called the Wisconsin Humane Society to learn more. She then connected with Pet Partners (formerly the Delta Society) who advised her of local behavior classes.

Dexter passed the behavior exam with the highest possible score for a cat and breezed through the bi-annual exam required of all therapy animals registered with Pet Partners. Dexter started in a reading program called Words for Whiskers, a collaborative effort with the Wisconsin Humane Society and the Milwaukee Public library that is designed to improve children’s reading skills.

Children with weak pronunciation often feel less threatened and safer reading to an animal such as Dexter.  Nancy Anderson, retired librarian at the Martin Luther King library, says, “Dexter was a star. The children eagerly greeted him when he arrived for each visit and he soaked in all the love.” In addition, Dexter and Wendy teach children about kindness to animals. Panaro is excited that a suburban library will offer a children’s reading program with “Dexter blazing the trail.”

The cat’s schedule is busy. In addition to children’s reading programs, he is involved in a program called Health Heelers. Currently, the patient receives visits from Dexter and a therapy dog. Laura Hey, president and founder, says Dexter is a special creature. “He is loving, patient and calm and has a good sense of humor. It’s great to have him and Wendy in our group.”

Milwaukee resident George Olwell loves Dexter. Olwell’s ex-wife Nancy with whom he remains close is confined to a nursing home. A life-long pet lover, Nancy cheers up when Dexter visits. Olwell says, “Dexter is one of a kind. He lays there next to Nancy and makes her happy.”

Exam time at colleges is stressful. Students fret about scoring good grades. Marquette University recognizes the demands placed on students, so they invited therapy teams from Health Heelers to visit. Dexter was available in the student union to calm anxious students.

According to Panaro he was a hit among students who were worried about exams and term papers.

For the fourth year in a row, Dexter represented Health Heelers at the annual Great Lakes Pet Expo. He served as the ambassador for pet therapy and demonstrated that cats, like dogs, can heal people when they are sick, injured or in crisis. Panaro says visitors are often surprised to see a leashed cat walking among the dogs.

Animal-assisted therapy is traditionally dominated by dogs but that is slowly changing. There are more cats like Dexter in the field.

According to Bill Kueser, VP of Marketing for Pet Partners, there are 200 registered cats compared with 10,000 dogs. Why so few therapy cats? Dianne Decker, the Arizona Animal Welfare League’s behaviorist, evaluates animals for Pet Partners.

She explains that cats are often not socialized to meet other people and animals like dogs are. “Most cats don’t tolerate travel well and many don’t like being harnessed or walking on a leash, which are requirements for pet therapy,” says Decker. Despite this, she evaluates about a dozen cats a year and says they often have the outstanding qualities necessary for therapy work.

Meanwhile, Dexter continues to spread kindness and compassion in the Milwaukee area. He just completed his fourth year as a therapy cat, demonstrating that cats can work alongside dogs at hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, schools, libraries and in many other places to help humans heal. Visit Dexter on Facebook and follow his interesting career.

Reprinted from The Latham Letter / Spring 2013 www.Latham.org

By Debra J. White 

Health Heelers founded by Laura Hey is a professional pet therapy service that customizes animal assisted therapy to meet specific needs of facilities and organizations in the greater Milwaukee area.

To learn more visit www.healthheelers.com 

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