'Meditating' Sphynx Cat Comforts Children Affected by Trauma: She Offers a 'Calming Presence'

A Pittsburgh crisis center has found the purrfect team member to help their clients cope with trauma.

Thea, a 4-year-old Sphynx cat, joined the Paws for Empowerment team at the nonprofit Crisis Center North (CCN) in November 2019. She is the only feline on the team at CCN, which is dedicated to bringing animal-assisted therapy to survivors of domestic violence.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the feline had been working in counseling sessions with children aged 2-19, according to Today.

Now, Thea meets virtually with kids who cannot come into the center and helps clients cope with the challenges of COVID-19 through mindfulness strategies like meditation.

Sydney Stephenson, Thea's handler and a CCN youth counselor, told Today that she and Thea typically work with children who have experienced various types of trauma.

"Kids come to me because they're in a difficult place — having a really hard time," Stephenson explained. "And nobody likes to talk about difficult things. But having Thea in the sessions is just such a calming presence. It reassures them. It can help them bond with me faster because they see how much she trusts me."

For example, Stephenson recalled one session with a young boy who initially seemed resistant until Thea came into play.

"Thea just naturally jumped on his lap. I did not have to prompt her to do that. And he melted," she said. "It was just amazing. He started petting her and she started to purr, and he would answer my questions a little bit more and more. We were finally having a full back-and-forth discussion. It was such a natural process."

Stephenson said she has trained Thea to do a variety of tricks. To teach Thea her skills, Stephenson uses clicker training, which teaches the cat to associate the sound of a click with a food reward.

One of her most notable tricks is the ability to look like she is meditating, which Stephenson taught by making a clicking noise whenever she saw Thea starting to relax.

"I think it took less than a session, really, for her to understand, 'Ooh, this noise means good things,'" Stephenson said.

Stephenson explained that it is a common misjudgment that cats are untrainable.

"You can train any cat. We sort of have this misperception of cats as standoffish, untrainable, stubborn, independent animals. But the reason for that usually is because they're misunderstood," she said. "They have very different learning styles and very different body language than dogs do. … It just involves getting to know the animal that you're working with and what motivates them, and what they like."

If you are experiencing domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, or go to thehotline.org. All calls are toll-free and confidential. The hotline is available 24/7 in more than 170 languages.

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