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Love that Heals

Updated: Feb 11

You have probably heard it said that the best therapist is one with fur and four legs.

Many of our feline and canine friends have been hard at work (or play) in nursing homes or special needs organisations, bringing connections to residents, creating a gentle and safe environment for them to open up and engage with people.

These cats and dogs have been specially selected and people are seeing how they work their magic by their mere presence in the room. Love Kuching Project and Healing Paws are just two of such organisations in Singapore whose cats and dogs are bringing joy and comfort to many who need it. There is nothing more comforting than the healing sound of a purr or a pat from a little paw.

Back in 2018, a blind cat with the neurological condition Cerebellar Hyperplasia (CH) named Donny made news for helping his “grandmother” on her journey to be cancer-free. He visited his granny almost daily while she was in hospital undergoing radiation treatments. According to his “mom”, Susan Smith, Donny would sit for hours on the hospital bed to keep Susan’s mom who was then 88 years old, company.

Donny the blind therapy cat kept visiting his grandma with lung cancer at the hospital, Blossom and her family, feature by Brilliant-Online

Donny the blind therapy cat kept visiting his grandma with lung cancer at the hospital

Photo Credit: @Blossom_and_her_family

Susan, who is based in the United States, adopted the blind CH kitty rescued by the North Shore Animal League. His name then was Leonardo with the nickname Nachos, but Susan brought him home and named him Donavan (Donny for short).

Volunteering alongside Susan, the sweet natured Donny became a certified therapy cat at local nursing homes and Alzheimer’s facilities where he patiently comforted residents and patients by sitting on their laps and listening to their chatter.

Sharing Happiness and Love with Cats

Donny is just one of the many rescues doing their part to give back to society around the world. In Singapore, a small animal welfare group, Love Kuching Project, has been engaging in cat-assisted therapy for residents of nursing homes or students at special needs schools since 2014.

“We have cat and human volunteers at the therapy sessions, the humans to start the conversations with the seniors in the nursing homes while the cat does what it does best – sit, chill and purr – on the seniors’ laps,” says Camellia Gani, Outreach Manager with Love Kuching Project. “The cats are, well, a communication tool to open dialogues with the elderly residents who may not be feeling great about themselves.”

Camellia Gani, with her cat, Simba in a wefie with an elderly resident, Madam Salama Binte Wanitam and Prime Minister of Singapore Mr Lee, , Brilliant-Online

“Cat-fie” with Camellia Gani, her cat Simba, Madam Salama Binte Wanitam and

Prime Minister of Singapore Mr Lee, Photo Credit – PM Lee Hsien Loong’s Facebook.

Through these therapy sessions, Camellia and her fellow volunteers who are all owners of sweet and easy-going natured cats, sit and chat with the residents of the nursing homes for an hour or two.

As nursing homes in Singapore do not allow residents to keep pets, the volunteers from Love Kuching Project discuss and work out suitable arrangements for residents and the cats to interact safely and comfortably.

“A lot of the residents tend to be quiet, reserved and even avoid eye contact with the human volunteers, but when they spot a cat in the room, their eyes start to smile!” says Camellia. “When we see that, we will introduce the cat to the elderly resident and get them to answer our questions. Soon, they will warm up and open to talk more about themselves and their lives back home (before living in the nursing home).”

“The best thing is that after a few months of regular cat therapy, we’re happy that the residents remember us and our cats and ask about us. Makes us feel like we’re part of their lives now.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, Love Kuching Project has had to suspend most of its cat therapy services. It resumed briefly in limited nursing homes under strict conditions such as shorter hours, and smaller group of volunteers and residents.

“COVID-19 has been challenging for us and our elderly patients. We hope that the situation improves and we can go back to sharing happiness and love with the elderly patients soon!” says Camellia.

Sparking Joy

Rachelle Tok and her mom, Yvette Quek, had adopted a stray named Vera, and were at a dog park one afternoon when a lady went up to them to say, “Hey, your dog seems really suitable for Healing Paws programme.”

Vera, the “Singapore special”, with her “mom” I-Gek and “sister” Rachell

It turned out that Healing Paws is an animal-assisted activities (AAA) service by Save Our Street Dogs (SOSD), a dog shelter in Singapore. Healing Paws organises and manages casual events such as “meet and greet” activities in which dogs and their owners visit people in homes or institutions.

“Vera has a really mild temperament. Nothing frazzles her,” says Yvette. “One of the assessment criteria is that a ‘stranger’ moves towards the dog in crutches or wheelchairs, the dog remains calm, does not flinch or get startled.”

Out of the more than 20 dogs assessed by Healing Paws, Vera was just one of the three who were selected to be in the AAA programme. The assessment criteria are strict and often, Healing Paws need to pro-actively scout and conduct two to three assessment sessions yearly to find canine friends with the right temperament and personality for their AAA programme.

“Every fortnight, we go to nursing homes or children’s homes in Singapore, each time the sessions are about an hour-long,” says Yvette. “For the children’s homes, we generally play out in the open field where the kids and dogs can run with each other. It gets noisy as the kids will be shouting and running around. But it doesn’t matter as all the dogs are not skittish, they don’t react negatively to the noise or movements.”

“Vera loves ball play – so the kids will throw a ball for her to catch or they’ll hide the ball for her to find. There’s a dog in our group that loves doing obstacle courses with the kids. We have been going regularly but it’s not unusual to find that the kids only remember the dogs’ names, not the human volunteers’ names!”

For the elderly residents of nursing homes, Vera interacts with them in a different way. “These folks are more sedentary and what they enjoy is to walk Vera, by holding her leash while I push their wheelchair,” says 11-year-old Rachelle. “Vera plays ball with the seniors too. They’ll throw the ball into corners or chairs as a challenge to make it harder for Vera to retrieve the ball. It’s fun for her, she loves the challenge!”

Yvette explains that there are seniors who had suffered strokes which affected their ability to move or control their limbs. “We will encourage the seniors to hold the ball in their weaker hands and throw it for Vera. This gives them an opportunity to exercise muscles that would generally not be used in their daily lives.”

Vera, proudly taking centrestage at a Healing Paws activity

At the time of this interview (June 2021), Singapore has been on a “heightened alert” phase to contain the pandemic, and all AAA activities have been suspended for public health and safety considerations. Yvette and Rachelle hope to return to the nursing homes or children’s homes to continue bringing joy to the residents again.

Love Kuching Project

COVID-19 has been tough for volunteer-run animal welfare groups like Love Kuching Project and Save Our Street Dog. Help them stay in operation by supporting their causes.


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