Therapy Cats Ease Travelers’ Airport Stress

Story at-a-glance -

  • Calgary International Airport in Alberta, Canada has two cats that make a regular appearance as part of the Pet Access League Society (PALS) stress-reducing pet program
  • Airports are bringing in therapy animals to help ease travelers stress and anxiety
  • While most airport therapy animals are dogs, cats are an increasing presence, as are other therapy animals like miniature horses and pigs

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Air travel is stressful, but if you’re lucky enough to pass through Calgary International Airport in Alberta, Canada make sure you plan a few extra minutes to cuddle with tabby cat Taz — he’ll be the one wearing the red “Pet Me” vest. Taz is one of two cats that make a regular appearance at Calgary airport as part of the Pet Access League Society (PALS) stress-reducing pet program.

While dogs usually are the ones to receive such honors, Taz and his feline buddy are breaking down stigmas and showing that cats can offer cuddles, too. Peggy Blacklock, manager of airport community engagement, told CBC News, “The animals make such a difference to the people — not only the people travelling through … but the people who work here … They have quite a fan base among the employee base here … It just is a great stress reliever. And they’re so cute.”1

How Animals Ease Airport Stress

Calgary International is one of a growing number of airports adding therapy animals to their daily mix — one of several in Canada and at least 50 in the U.S., including LAX, Dallas/Fort Worth, Phoenix, Denver, San Jose, and Bradley International Airport in Connecticut.2 According to Pet Access League Society (PALS), whose volunteers bring therapy animals to Calgary airport as well as a number of other facilities such as hospitals, long-term care centers, schools, libraries and more, animal-assisted therapy can offer:3

Reduced anxiety, grief and isolation

Reduced blood pressure, depression and risk of heart attack or stroke

Improved willingness to be involved in a therapeutic program or group activity

Increased trust, empathy and teamwork

Greater self-control

Enhanced problem-solving skills

Reduced need for medication

Improved social skills

Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) also has a program to help passengers relax. It’s called PUPs — Pets Unstressing Passengers and, according to the program’s Facebook page, involves “trained dogs and handlers roaming all terminal boarding gates, 7-days a week.” PUPs dogs must be in good health, skilled, stable, well-behaved and able to work on a slack 4-foot leash.

They must be comfortable with crowds and strange sounds and smells. The dogs’ handlers are trained to watch for travelers who seem fearful or dislike dogs, or those with allergies. Most of the time though, passengers approach the dogs and not the other way around.

More than 70 dogs are involved in LAX’s PUP program, and although cats are more of a rarity, other animals are also making the rounds, including miniature therapy horses at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport and at San Francisco International Airport, a pig.4

Denver International Airport, meanwhile, has a squad of more than 100 dogs and one cat that make up its Canine Airport Therapy Squad (CATS). It’s the largest airport therapy animal program in the U.S. and boasts that its members represent more than 40 breeds, from dachshunds to Newfoundlands. They have an amusing collection of “CATS Tales” told in first-person by the animals themselves. Martha, a Labrador, shared:5

“One day while on volunteer duty on B Gates, I heard, ‘Hey Ms. Therapy Dog … I need you!’ As my owner turned me around, we saw a young man … I noticed his eyes were red and almost as wet as my nose. As we walked together, my owner let him talk first. ‘I’ve got a broken heart. I need some therapy.’

(With the sad ones, my owner knows it’s best to let me take over.) As we sat together, the man started to cry. ‘I just flew here and said good bye to my best friend of 20 years. I held his hand as he died.’ The young man buried his face into my fur and we stayed just like that until he felt better. He left with a bit of a smile, which made it a very good day at the airport!”

Skeptical That Cats Can Make Good Therapy Animals?

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to share your home with an affectionate, friendly and outgoing kitty, then you know that felines acting as therapy animals in airports is not a stretch. Even though cats offer stress relief in a different way than their dog counterparts, their sheer presence can have a soothing, calming effect nonetheless. Further, it’s been found that when cats were present during therapy sessions, good things happened, such as:6

  • People with depression became more social and had fewer symptoms
  • Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) had increased attention spans
  • People with autism or other developmental disabilities were more social and had increased attention spans
  • People with Alzheimer’s disease were less depressed and angry and had increased attention spans

At Denver International Airport, the first feline member of the aptly named CATS team — Xeli, a 5-year-old domestic shorthair — made her debut in September 2017. CEO Kim Day said in a news release, "Our CATS program has been extremely popular with passengers since its inception in 2015, and what a purr-fect way to take the program to the next level by introducing our first feline, Xeli … Just like all of our dogs, Xeli will visit passengers on our concourses, bringing joy and comfort to passengers of all ages.”7

For weary travelers, it seems, it’s not the type of animal that matters so much as a friendly gaze, a furry shoulder to cry on or warm, soft coat to cuddle — and that’s something that dogs and cats alike excel in.

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