Every other Friday night, Bullet the Wonder Cat gets a nice, relaxing bath with peppermint shampoo. That’s how he knows it’s time to hop in the kitty carrier, drive to the hospital, and get hugs from children.
This might be a recipe for disaster that would compel most cats to cower under the bed, but Bullet is an unusual fellow. Not only does he enjoy baths and relax during hugs, he’s also not afraid of strangers or loud noises, which makes this superhero Burmese is the perfect therapy cat. Since 2007, Bullet and his self-proclaimed chauffeur and assistant Dana Gary have been visiting patients at Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt Lake City, where Bullet has demonstrated a sixth sense comforting kids.
"He seems to understand what it is that they need," Gary says. "For some reason, with the animals being nonjudgmental and not saying anything or telling them to do anything, people are much more willing to open up and to try things, because the animal is not going to laugh at them."
From the moment Gary and her husband brought Bullet home in 1993, he has been bold and fearless; right away he shot out of his crate "faster than a speeding bullet." The rest of his title came from the nurses at the hospital, where their roster of therapy pets includes 23 dogs — and Bullet the Wonder Cat.
"Nobody could believe a cat could do this," Gary says. "I like dogs also, but it’s definitely a different vibe with cats. So many times I am told that cats are so much more soothing and so much more relaxing."
Gary did not adopt Bullet with therapy work in mind. She started volunteering with Therapy Animals of Utah, the nonprofit organization that serves Primary Children’s Medical Center and more than 40 other facilities in the area, at the suggestion of her vet, who insisted it was incredibly rare for a cat to have Bullet’s temperament. Just how rare? According to Gary, approximately one in 600 cats can pass the Pet Partners evaluation, which gauges cats’ responses to loud noises and whether they can remain calm while being petting by multiple strangers simultaneously, receiving restraining hugs, being passed from lap to lap, and undergoing a physical examination.
"Basically they’re trying to throw everything he could possibly be exposed to at him to see what his reaction is going to be," Gary explains. "They’ve pushed him to the brink, and they see that he’s not going to flip out. To do therapy work, they have to beunflappable. They can’t be frightened by anything."
While volunteering with Bullet, Gary has witnessed firsthand his amazing healing power. One boy they visited had suffered a traumatic brain injury, and the occupational therapist had been unable to get him to use his hands. But when Gary placed Bullet on his lap, he eagerly agreed to brush the 6-pound cat. "I got the brush out and demonstrated, explaining that Bullet liked it when you did long slow strokes down his back and sides," Gary says in an article on the Therapy Animals of Utah website. "He watched me very seriously, and then followed my instructions perfectly four or five times before breaking into a huge grin and handing the brush back to me."
During another hospital visit, Gary met a distraught mother whose son had been unresponsive since arriving at the hospital. The family had two cats at home, but the mother did not think her son was healthy enough to appreciate a visit from Bullet. Gary insisted they should at least try.
"I picked up his hand and began slowly stroking Bullet’s fur with it," Gary writes. "After maybe 20 strokes, I stopped guiding his hand -ÔÇô but he continued stroking. He was still petting him a few minutes later when he opened his eyes. They were bleary and unfocused -ÔÇô but they were open!"
Gary’s experiences back up the studies and the research, which has shown that therapy pets can lower blood pressure and decrease heart and respiration rates. Gary has also had kids tell her that their pain levels decreased ÔÇô- or disappeared altogether -ÔÇô while Bullet was lying with them.
"People can be really upset, and this calms them down," Gary says. "Nurses have told me a bunch of times that the first time they had seen children smile was when I brought Bullet into the room for a visit. It has been pretty amazing to me."
Since Bullet is nearly 20 years old, he will need to retire soon. About a year ago, Gary adopted Ollie, another Burmese, who just passed his therapy cat evaluation and has begun visiting children at the hospital every other week, when Bullet gets the night off. Gary suspects that her Burmese are specially suited for therapy work because they have been bred as show cats for generations. In addition to Bullet and Ollie, she has two other Burmese at home.
"They have judges handling them, picking them up, putting them in the cage, taking them out ÔÇª there’s an audience and people are clapping. I’m thinking this may be why I’ve had success," she says. "Burmese are extremely social cats. Every time my mother-in-law comes to the house, she has to take a picture of all my Burmese lying in a basket together."
As Bullet transitions out of his role as a healer and Ollie transitions in, Gary looks forward to sharing the remarkable therapeutic power of cats with more children and their families.
"The most fulfilling thing to me about doing therapy work is knowing that I have given someone in physical or emotional pain something to think and talk about, something to focus on other than their problem for a while," Gary says. "Doing what I do is strictly volunteer, but it is the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done. I hope that if I ever need it, someone will do the same thing for me. And so the circle goes around."