The stress-busting dogs — and one cat — that greet passengers at Denver International Airport (DEN) aren’t just cute and cuddly. They’re now officially world record titleholders.
The animals, and their handlers, are part of DEN’s Canine Airport Therapy Squad (CATS) and the program now has a spot in the Guinness World Records 2023 book. The category: Largest Airport Therapy Animal Program.
In 2021, when Guinness fetched the data for this category, DEN’s CATS program had 87 animals in its animal therapy program. And that gave DEN a leg up on all other airports.
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“We are extremely proud of our CATS program and grateful for all the volunteers who donate their time to bring joy to our passengers and employees,” said DEN CEO Phil Washington. “And we look forward to welcoming even more teams as we continue to grow this beloved program.”
How did CATS clinch the title?
About 90 airports around the country have animal therapy programs. And, according to DEN spokeswoman Stephanie Figueroa, Guinness initially reached out to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), which hosts the Pets Unstressing Passengers (PUP) program.
LAX and DEN have always gone back and forth for the largest airport animal therapy program and at one time LAX had 123 teams in the PUP program, said Heide Huebner, director of volunteers and the PUP program at LAX. “But Covid really affected us.”
Some volunteers moved out of state. Some dogs aged out or passed away. And in 2021, when Guinness was looking at numbers, Denver had more teams than LAX. LAX currently has 75 teams, 12 new teams in the onboarding process and interest from others.
“I know we will be neck and neck again with Denver for the largest program,” said Huebner. But in the meantime, “The LAX PUPs send a big congratulations to the Denver CATS program for winning the title for largest program. It feels good that LAX was there to help you start your program and we are very proud of you!”
The competition could be fierce. DEN’s Figueroa says the airport is always working on growing its program with new volunteer teams and expects to be able to hold onto the Largest Airport Therapy Animal Program title.
Beyond the listing in Guinness World Records 2023, Guinness gave Denver International Airport a certificate noting its world record title. Guinness doesn’t allow those certificates to be copied, so Denver International Airport hasn’t decided yet if it will display the original certificate in the terminal for the public to see. For now, though, the news of the award is on the CATS page of the Denver International Airport website, which also features photos and information, such as breed, birthdate and pet peeves of each CATS member.
While it is currently the largest airport therapy animal program, Denver’s animal therapy program isn’t the first. That title goes to San Jose International Airport (SJC), which began hosting therapy animals shortly after the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Today that program has 25 dogs and two cats that visit with passengers in the terminals.
At San Francisco International Airport (SFO), the animal therapy program launched in 2013 and is known as the Wag Brigade. In addition to dogs, the team includes a pig and a rabbit.
DEN airport’s CATS program began on Oct. 29, 2015, on National Cat Day, with 28 members from 14 breeds. The program was put on pause during the pandemic and has resumed with teams donating more than 1,250 hours of time so far in 2022.
All CATS must be registered with a recognized pet therapy association, and the program currently includes 84 members and 33 breeds as well as one cat, along with their human handlers.
As with animal therapy programs elsewhere, the CATS program is designed to provide stress relief and delight passengers. In CATS terminology, each pet wearing a plaid “Pet Me” vest just wants to make traveling “a little less ruff.”
“Whether it’s with a lick, a nuzzle or some amusing antics, our four-legged friends have an amazing ability to make us smile — even when we might be feeling stressed or anxious,” said Adam Millward, managing editor, Guinness World Records. “The Canine Airport Therapy Squad at Denver Airport have taken this innate skill and run with it. It’s a pleasure to be able to recognize the hard-working dogs as well as their owners, who selflessly give up their time to brighten the day of thousands of travelers every year.”