In this image from a video posted on social media by Pittsburgh's Crisis Center North, Sphynx the therapy cat demonstrates how to meditate alongside a child's meditation video.

Crisis Center North, Facebook

Meditating cat helps children cope with abuse, trauma

By Jessica Ivins, KSL.com Contributor | Posted - Feb. 9, 2021 at 8:42 p.m.



SALT LAKE CITY — A unique trauma counselor is helping children in Pittsburgh find healing through a special form of meditation, and the consensus is in: she's the cat's meow.

Thea — a 4-year-old Sphynx — works with her handler, youth counselor Sydney Stephenson, to serve kids who have experienced domestic violence and other serious trauma, according to People magazine. The pair serves as part of the Paws for Empowerment team at Crisis Center North, a Pittsburg nonprofit counseling center.

"Kids come to me because they're in a difficult place – having a really hard time," Stephenson told TODAY. "And nobody likes to talk about difficult things. But having Thea in the sessions is just such a calming presence. It reassures them. It can help them bond with me faster because they see how much she trusts me."

Thea is an expert at making cat lovers out of even the most skeptical critics. She can give "kisses" by rubbing her chin on a child's outstretched hand, and she knows how to jump up on Stephenson's shoulder with a simple command.

Stephenson told TODAY that while most people don't think of cats as animals that can be trained, Thea is proof of the contrary.

"They have very different learning styles and very different body language than dogs do," she said. "It just involves getting to know the animal that you're working with and what motivates them, and what they like."

The fantastic feline revealed one of her coolest tricks after COVID-19 hit the U.S. last year. New safety protocols required virtual counseling sessions, preventing kids from interacting with the cat in person.

So Stephenson worked with Thea to create a "meditation" video to share on the Crisis Center North's Facebook page to help "clients address the challenges of COVID-19 with mindfulness strategies," according to the caption.

In the video, Thea is sitting still, eyes closed as a meditation exercise plays in the background.

"Be aware of your body as best you can," a voice reads. "Take a breath, and then when you're ready, you can open your eyes."

With that, the calm, obedient kitty pops open her big eyes – completing the exercise with feline flair.

"Darn cute!" wrote one Facebook user.

"So relaxing," another commented.

According to People, Stephenson trained Thea in the art of meditation, along with her impressive arsenal of tricks, by using a clicking method. Simply put, the cat learns to associate a clicking sound with food or a treat.

Stephenson told TODAY that every time Thea started looking relaxed, she would make a clicking sound – thus achieving the ultimate zen.

While Thea's meditation debut is indisputably impressive, she won't be teaching any yoga classes soon. She'll be sticking to the humans she loves most – children who are hurting, vulnerable and in need of her special brand of comfort.

Thea joined the Paws for Empowerment team in 2019 and remains the only feline in the group – her cohorts are three dogs. According to its website, the program's mission is to provide emotional support and comfort to victims during counseling sessions, accompany victims as they face their abusers, and help children understand healthy relationships.

"By utilizing animals, we're teaching compassion and care and how to love appropriately without harming," CCN's executive director, Grace Coleman, told TODAY. "The children can start developing a caretaking, loving relationship with animals."

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Jessica Ivins

About the Author: Jessica Ivins

Jessica Ivins has three loves: her family, doughnuts and the news. She's been producing, writing and editing for KSL for more than 8 years and doesn't plan to stop until she's 90. Jessica spends her free time running, eating and hiking her way through Seattle, where she lives with her husband and three children.

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