Therapy Cats Give Hospice Residents a Little Bit of Home


Therapy cats often cause people to do a double-take. It’s common for dogs to be therapy pets, but very few cats are certified as therapy pets.

In the following story, Nicole Young reports on a hospice that welcomes therapy cats who are improving the quality of life for terminally ill patients.

Claire Gallo has had a tough month.

Her mother, Stephanie Zembar, 53, was admitted to Nashville’s Alive Hospice Residence on Nov. 12 after battling glioblastoma, a deadly brain tumor, for nearly a year.

Gallo dropped out of Auburn University the following Monday, packed up her dorm room and headed home.

But last week her tired face lit up ever so slightly as she held Baldwin, a 10-year-old therapy cat, while standing just outside her mother’s room.

“My mom loves cats,” the 18-year-old Brentwood resident said, looking down at Baldwin. “Seeing a cat here reminds me of how it was at home. My cat loved her so much, and I really think cats can soothe someone.

“Cats are wise. They know what’s up.”

For about six years, Baldwin and his owner, Nan Shinn, 61, of West Meade, have visited Alive Hospice Residence Nashville, at the corner of Charlotte and Patterson downtown, at least twice a week to comfort patients, their families and staff members.

Shinn, a former medical office manager, has done pet therapy since she was in her 20s. Her father, an internist specializing in rheumatoid arthritis at a nursing home in California, is the inspiration behind her volunteer work.

In addition to Baldwin, she has a therapy cat named Christopher who visits the hospice every other week.

Fifteen years ago, Shinn’s volunteering took on extra special meaning when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

“Most people who have a disability don’t think they can volunteer,” she said. “It’s really good for someone with a chronic illness to get out and give to others because you can get lost in your own illness.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten more out of the experience than I’ve given out.”

During her visits, Shinn, using an electric wheelchair, goes from room to room carting Baldwin in a shoulder-sling baby carrier. Sometimes, the patients and families will stroke him while he’s in her lap, other times she puts a towel down and places him on the bed next to the patient. “Many times the initial reaction is shock,” she said. “Not everyone likes cats, especially black ones, but they are always shocked to see a cat coming around in a bag.

“I get lots of stories from people about how their cat would never, ever do this.”

That’s exactly the reaction Gallo had.

Her cat, a 9-year-old Russian Blue named Keisha, likes to hide.

“She’s friendly when she wants to be,” Gallo said. “She comes out more now that mom is sick.”

Shinn says that kind of behavior demonstrates cats’ intuition.

“They know when someone doesn’t feel well or something’s going on,” she said. “Baldwin usually gets me in the door, but I do the talking.

Recruiting volunteers

“I hope that people feel calmer than when I went in there. I want to leave a little happiness behind.”

Alive Hospice is recruiting volunteers such as Shinn and Baldwin.

The organization needs volunteers for pet therapy. music therapy, hair care, office work and fundraising. Volunteers can visit patients in their homes or at Alive Hospice Residence Nashville, Alive Hospice at Saint Thomas or Alive Hospice at Skyline Medical Center.

For more information about Alive Hospice or to learn more about volunteering, call 615-327-1085 or visit

[SOURCE:Nicole Young, The Tennesseean]

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