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By Cornelia Le Roux

Digital Deputy News Editor

Purr power: Zeus the therapy cat has UWC staff and students ‘feline fine’

Zeus, the University of the Western Cape's therapy cat, assists with 45 minutes to an hour of treatment and sees up to four patients a day.

Everyone has heard of therapy dogs. Tail-wagging fluff machines providing top-notch emotional support to us humans in need of some feel-good hormones. But what about the lesser spotted therapy cat?

It takes a special cat to be a therapy cat…These fine felines visit hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools and mental health facilities to provide emotional and physical support to humans.

Zeus the therapy cat: Reporting for duty

In January this year, Zeus the therapy cat travelled from Gauteng to Cape Town with “his human”, Cayla Bergman-Ally, when she was appointed as an intern psychologist at the Centre for Student Support Services (CSSS) at the University of the Western Cape (UWC).

And he has been purring away at top speed ever since…helping students and staff at the UWC to overcome trauma and mental health challenges.

Animal-assisted therapy

Bergman-Ally is completing her master’s degree in animal-assisted therapy research, and Zeus has played an integral role in assisting with her studies.

Zeus the therapy cat and his owner Cayla Bergman-Ally
Zeus and his owner Cayla Bergman-Ally in January this year when she was appointed as an intern psychologist at the University of the Western Cape. Picture: Supplied/ UWC

“The basis for animal-assisted therapy is twofold: Cats and animals. But cats, specifically their purring and energy, heal individuals. There is physical symptom relief for people with panic attacks and anxiety,” Bergman-Ally explained.

“Zeus will sit on them, and his purring decompresses patients. This helps by decreasing their stress levels and heart rate.”

The power of purr

“Purrs at a frequency of 25 to 100Hz correspond with established healing frequencies in therapeutic medicine for humans,” Gary Weitzman, a veterinarian and CEO of the San Diego Humane Society, told the BBC.

“Bone responds to 25 to 50Hz and skin and soft tissues to around 100Hz according to researchers,” Weitzman explained.

Petting a cat has long been seen as a form of stress relief. Cat ownership could cut the risk of stroke or heart disease by as much one-third.

Those same frequencies cats purr at might also be doing good to us as well.

“I think the purr has a big benefit for humans,” said Weitzman. “The physiological benefits aside, we’ve always responded to purring’s psychological effects. It calms us and pleases us, like watching waves against a beach.”

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Growing client base

Since the arrival of the seal point ragdoll cat on campus, who resides in Durbanville when he is not working a shift, his “client base” has increased.

Bergman-Ally says he has helped patients who initially were not fans of cats.

“He comes without judgment, so my clients often prefer to engage with him, and I will write my notes. That’s amazing because I had clients coming in who were terrified of cats, and once they met Zeus, their attitude and approach changed.”

therapy cats Zeus university of the western cape
Therapy cat Zeus takes some ‘time to paws’ at the office. Photo: Supplied/ UWC

The 23-year-old master’s candidate said there were added benefits to animal-assisted therapy, especially for patients dealing with specific trauma.

“From the clients that I see dealing with a lot of grief, Zeus pacifies intense loss. Students who have been sexually abused don’t want to be touched, but stroking Zeus helps them,” says Bergman-Ally.

The five-month-old cat assists with 45 minutes to an hour of treatment and sees up to four patients daily.

Therapy-fit: Zeus needs ‘time to paws’

This type of treatment is physically exhausting for the intern psychologist. And her furry sidekick Zeus needs plenty of “time to paws”.

“We both have to be therapy-fit. If we see four clients per day, we are exhausted. Zeus will then sleep the entire car ride home. We are now working on being therapy-fit as we aim to see more clients,” she says. 

“Zeus’ way of decompressing involves taking his catnaps on my desk by the window, overlooking the campus between sessions.”

Animal-assisted therapy in South Africa

Animal-assisted therapy is a globally used practice. Dogs are more commonly used for this form of treatment.

Bergman-Ally said research in this field in South Africa was much slower compared to other countries.

“Animal-assisted therapy is mostly found in hospital settings. I would like to open a private practice and create an environment that can show that this type of treatment is beneficial in the fight against mental health issues.”

What does Katy Perry and cats have in common?

Bizarrely, according to new research, cats may use a similar technique to singers such as Katy Perry to produce their purr.

Singer Katy Perry is a known for being ‘feline enthusiast‘. Picture: Instagram/@katyperry

The low frequency sounds in purring can be produced without the fine control of the vocal cords. Instead, fibrous tissues in the cords allow an animal only a few kilograms in size produce such deep resonant noises.

The effect is reminiscent of the way humans produce the vocal fry register, the croaky voice used by singers such as Perry, according to the researchers.

How therapy cat Zeus beat the odds

Zeus’s journey to CSSS was also challenging. Shortly after being rescued by his owner from a cat breeder while caged in horrible living conditions in Johannesburg, the then four-week-old kitten was diagnosed with parvovirus.

Parvovirus is an often fatal illness that claims the lives of many cats and dogs. 

Chances of survival were slim. But Zeus beat the odds.

A few months later, though, he would face further trauma when he landed in a backyard occupied by a dog after a fall from a third-floor balcony.

He suffered severe injuries to his bladder, back, and lungs, and he is currently undergoing treatment.

‘He likes the mountains and the beach’

While on the road to recovery, Zeus is making the most of life in Sea Point. 

“Zeus is a typical Capetonian. He likes the mountains and the beach. I am not a fan of the beach, but he forces me to do those things, which also benefits me,” said Bergman-Ally.

“We hike the bottom part of Table Mountain, and he loves the Majik Forest in Durbanville.”

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