Nervous about flying? Some lucky passengers have a four-legged remedy to the stresses and strains of airports. Meet them here...
Heading off on holiday for some sun and relaxation should be a time of joy but one part of the journey does throw up some unexpected stress: the airport. Even for those passengers who aren’t nervous about flying, there are other pressures: where is that passport? Did you remember to pack your toothpaste? How big can your carry-on bag be? Plus, there’s that big worry at any airport — making sure you find the right departure gate with enough time so you don’t miss the plane!
So, what’s the answer? Some lucky passengers have a four-legged remedy to the stresses and strains of airports — a therapy cat. We find out more about two of these airport angels.
Stitches — making the airport seem like home
Pretty Stitches loves volunteering at the airport so much that on a day when she is working, she will wake her owner up!
“She never wakes me up usually,” said Nikki Christopher. “But when I’ve told her the night before that we’re going to the airport the next day, she will be there in the morning making sure I’m up bright and early. Then she stays by my side or sits in her stroller until we leave.”
Stitches can’t get enough of being stroked, loves people, and is drawn to busy places which made her ideal to join the team at Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport in Kentucky. The calico and tabby mix — a tabico! — was the first cat to join the airport’s Animal Ambassador programme, currently consisting of about 45 dogs.
Since 2019, Nikki has volunteered with Stitches once a week in the airport’s terminal 1 until the pandemic struck. “People would love seeing Stitches. They would say ‘I’ve never seen a cat at an airport,’ and then start rubbing her head and tummy.
“Passengers love having her there — some people associate cats with calm and warmth more than dogs. And she helps with stress as she makes people feel like they are more at home, so they relax, and are able to relax a little and forget that they’re in a hectic airport.”
The 14-year-old cat never tires of being petted. “We visit the airport and she lies in her stroller and purrs,” said Nikki. “And if they stop, she gives them ‘the look’, which makes them start stroking her again!”
The only time that Stitches might be distracted from getting all the strokes she can is if they pass a restaurant, then she sits up to “sniff out cheeseburgers and pizza!”
Stitches is a very experienced therapy cat. Before covid, she volunteered at a nursing home, colleges, high schools, workplaces, and stress reduction events, and would also go to elementary schools where pupils would read to her.
Nikki said: “She is never done being petted, she loves being stroked everywhere, and has to be the centre of attention.”
Stitches is a rescue cat who was bottle-fed after she and her littermates were found motherless when a giant tornado hit nearby. Nikki describes her personality as “ultra princess sillypants.”
And it’s not just passengers who like seeing Stitches at the airport. “She has a great fan base with employees,” said Nikki. “She’s great at de-stressing the employees. Some departments even send out texts when she’s spotted!”
And is an airport therapy cat better than a therapy dog? Nikki added: “Stitches would say of course cats are better! She would say that she’s better behaved, smells better, is smarter, and better looking!”
Xeli loves attention.
Xeli — taking the stress out of travelling
If you’re travelling through Denver Airport then you might be fortunate to spot Xeli, the therapy cat giving out her calming vibes to some of the 59 million passengers who pass through each year.
She is part of the Canine Airport Therapy Squad (CATS) which is made up of more than 80 therapy dogs and herself, the only cat. CATS was set up in 2015 and is the largest airport therapy animal programme in the US.
“Everyone is pretty surprised when they see a cat at the airport,” said Xeli’s owner Nathan Pensack-Rinehart who volunteers with his wife, Liane. “They will do a quick double-take or just light up with excitement if they are cat people — completely not expecting to see a cat at the airport.”
Xeli, pronounced Zell-ee, joined the team in 2017 and sports a blue c harness with the words Pet Me on them. Since the first day she volunteered, the rescue cat has proved popular among the passengers and airport workers.
Nathan said that every time they volunteered at the airport, they had a different experience: “During a typical visit, we pick a concourse and walk through it, seeing where the shift takes us and who we’ll meet. Sometimes it’s super busy, other times it’s slow depending on the flight schedules on that given day and time.
“Some visits we barely move from getting past the entrance and other times we talk to large groups of kids at various gates. It’s anyone’s guess what the day will bring!”
Whenever the couple, who live in Denver too, find people interested in the 10-year-old brown tabby, they stop and chat for a while, talking about the animal therapy programme or whatever conversation might crop up. “Often they will tell us about their pets, especially their cats, or sometimes about their trip in or out of Colorado.”
It’s during these chats that charming Xeli will work her magic, getting close to the passengers, and as they stroke her, her calming nature can make the pressures of travel melt away. Passengers can hug, pet, and take pictures with Xeli.
“She loves sitting on all sorts of people’s laps and just getting stroked,” said the 34-year-old. “Sometimes people barely agree to hold her before she jumps right on their lap, or sits on top of their suitcase. She is a sucker for attention and the airport provides no shortage of cat people, wanting to talk to us, but more importantly petting and holding Xeli.”
To become a certified therapy cat in the US, Nathan and Liane had to do some online training and an in-person assessment for both of them and for Xeli, to make sure that she was happy meeting new people, handling large spaces, and unexpected noises. They hold a certificate with Pet Partners, one of the US’s largest animal therapy organisations. After all that, there was an airport security check and an introductory visit — and then it was take-off!
Nathan said that lots of travellers say they can’t believe how chilled out Xeli is in such a busy environment: “Many passengers who we talk to express how amazing it is that she’s able to be calm and friendly in such a large, open space, but love that she is there.”
He added: “But it’s just her personality — she’s a natural! She is super-friendly, sweet, and is always looking for a head or tail scratch, or a lap to sit on.”
All the animals in the Denver Airport CATS have their own ‘trading cards’, with their photo, name, and some fun facts about them. Xeli’s card says her favourite treat is catnip and her favourite activity is making friends!
Nathan said: “Employees like to collect as many different CATS cards as they can by meeting the different team members. We’ve heard sometimes Xeli is called the ‘unicorn’ since she’s the only cat and so pretty rare.”
During covid, the couple and Xeli had to stop volunteering but now they are happy to be back among the passengers with Xeli about once a month. Nathan said that working with Xeli at the airport was really fun and rewarding: “During nearly, if not every, visit, employees, passengers, or both will tell us how that completely made their day.
“On our most recent volunteer visit to the airport, we met a guy who missed his flight and so needed to spend more than eight hours there until the next one, and he was pretty down about it. When he saw us, he immediately lit up and loved chatting with us and, of course, holding Xeli. It made the missed flight almost a blessing in disguise.”
And, most importantly of all, Xeli enjoys it! Nathan says she likes the variety of new sights and smells. “We can tell how much she likes her trips to the airport. She’s very relaxed and enjoys being held or sitting on people’s laps. And even when it’s time for them to get their flight, she won’t want to get up but will want to stay sitting on their laps! She really loves it.”
Airport therapy animals is a growing trend.
Therapy pets at airports
San Jose International Airport in California was the first airport to offer therapy dogs in terminals, starting shortly after the 9/11 attacks, to help calm passengers’ nerves before flying. It’s thought that now more than 40 US airports have therapy animals.
San Francisco International Airport even has a therapy Pig. Lilou, a Juliana, is part of a massive team of more than 300 dog, cat, and rabbit volunteers on their Wag Brigade team of volunteers.
Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport has miniature therapy horses! The unique programme is a nod to the area’s equestrian history.
The UK’s first airport therapy dogs started work at Aberdeen Airport in 2019, but as yet, there do not appear to be any airport therapy cats in this country.
The next PAT cat?
Could your cat volunteer with Pets As Therapy?
PAT is a UK charity that sees volunteers with their pets visit establishments such as care homes, hospitals, hospices, schools, and prisons to bring smiles to people’s faces.
To become a volunteer with your cat, there is an online form to fill in about yourself and your pet to begin the process.
Visit petsastherapy.org to find out more.