Home World Felines can be trained to be certified therapy cats, as 7-year-old Sputnik...

Felines can be trained to be certified therapy cats, as 7-year-old Sputnik can attest – Chicago Tribune


Of all the places to conduct my first interview with a cat, Lazy Dog, the canine-friendly restaurant on Route 59 in Naperville, would not have been my first choice. But if that’s where Sputnik, the certified therapy cat, wanted to meet, who was I to quibble?

Seven-year-old Sputnik is a long-haired feline of undetermined breed who takes her work very seriously. She has nearly 15,000 followers on Facebook and Instagram and enjoys regular visits to nursing homes, schools and corporate events. She lives with Sonya and Curt Stowers, of Naperville, and two other cats.

She arrived for our chat in her own personal stroller and introduced me to her human companion aka owner.

“This is my assistant Sonya,” she said. “She helps me with everything. She tells me I’ve lived with her since I was three days old although obviously I don’t remember that. Apparently, we met at the Naperville Area Humane Society, where mom has volunteered for nearly 10 years.”

Sputnik was the smallest of her litter, weighing just four ounces when she was born. It usually takes a kitten eight weeks to grow to two pounds, at which time they’re ready to be spayed or neutered. But starting so tiny it took her 13 weeks to reach that milestone by which time she had wormed her way into the Stowers’ affection and went from foster cat to pet.

“I like to think of myself as the favorite,” Sputnik said. “Spec, the other female cat in the house, just tolerates me but Leo and I get along well. But let’s face it, not every cat is cut out to do the work I do.”

When the humane society put out a plea for cats to join for their volunteer therapy program, Sonya was happy to offer 4-month-old Sputnik’s services. Certified therapy cats aren’t allowed at Naperville’s Edward Hospital like dogs are but they do visit high schools, North Central College, local nursing homes and hospice patients.

These days, Sputnik does between five and 10 visits a month.

Sputnik needed more than three months of training to become a certified therapy cat, although in almost every other way she's a normal feline who's curious and loves to play with toys and sleep, her Naperville owners say. (Sonya Stowers)
Sputnik needed more than three months of training to become a certified therapy cat, although in almost every other way she’s a normal feline who’s curious and loves to play with toys and sleep, her Naperville owners say. (Sonya Stowers)

“The training was like the canine good citizen program but feline,” Sputnik said. “I had to get used to wearing a harness and leash, but to be honest it wasn’t difficult for a cat with my aptitude. Mom took me to public places like pet friendly stores because they can be noisy but it wasn’t a problem.”

Training took about three and a half months. The canny cat knows whenever she’s helped into her harness and bandana it’s time to go to work and she enjoys traveling in the car.

“Do you know only 5% of therapy animals are cats? The majority are dogs, although there are some horses. Harder to get them into the car,” Sputnik said, stopping to laugh at her own joke.

“People often say they didn’t know cats could do this or ask why they didn’t have cat therapy available when they were in hospital,” she said. “Some people call mom Cat Woman. It’s important for me to have a bond with my handler. I trust her to keep me safe so I can concentrate on my work, which basically involves keeping myself beautiful, being admired and running my socials. I guess you could call me a feline Kim Kardashian.”

Sputnik decided to start her own Facebook page on a whim back in 2019. With her mom’s assistance, she posts most days and has followers from all over the world. She’s recently became a rising creator, meaning some of her posts are monetized. For her birthday, she donated $350 to the humane society.

During the pandemic Sputnik missed work so much that she sent photos and emails to some of the places she visited previously. They were delighted to hear from her, she said.

“Many of my followers are women over 60, but there are also some teenagers,” she said. “I enjoy getting likes, or licks as I prefer to call them. Sometimes I get private messages from people. One person said looking at my pictures on their phone helped them get through having a panic attack as they got on a bus.”

Someone else wrote to share about recently coming through drug rehabilitation.

When not working, Sputnik insists she’s a regular pet and doesn’t let all the attention go to her head. She uses her down time to catch up on sleep (on average 16 hours a day) and keeps herself in top shape with plenty of grooming and playing with toys. She enjoys watching basketball on TV, especially the University of Illinois games. She likes music, particularly Cat Stevens, although she finds Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” clawful.

The humane society is always in need of cat or dog foster families but there are other ways to help too.

“You can volunteer, adopt, donate money, litter or dog and cat food,” Sputnik said. “We’re always looking for more therapy cats too. Did you know most have been rescued? If you have a cat you think would like to volunteer, contact my people at the Humane Society.”

You can reach them at www.naperhumane.org. To follow Sputnik, go to Sputnik the Therapy Cat on Facebook or sputnik_the_therapy_cat on Instagram.

Hilary Decent is a freelance journalist who moved from England to Naperville in 2007. She can be reached at [email protected].

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