Therapy Animals Offer Virtual Visits

A gray tuxedo cat named Roger is jumping through hoops to spread cheer during the pandemic. The Scottsdale, Arizona-based therapy cat normally enjoys hands-on attention from hospice patients of Hospice of the Valley, kids at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, students at Arizona State University, and visitors to the Scottsdale Public Library.

Of course, the coronavirus pandemic brought in-person visits to a screeching halt in March of 2020. So now Roger entertains staff and patients during virtual Zoom visits, showing off his trademark tricks: high fives and, yes, jumping through hoops.

The gray and white tuxedo cat also “talks” and knows the words “yes,” “no,” “mama,” “hello,” and “maybe.”

“The kids at the hospital used to love that because they’d ask him questions and he would answer,” recalls Roger’s handler, Tracy Howell.

Howell says her cat is extremely smart – he learned his skills quickly because of the treats she offered as a reward – and is still spreading smiles despite being separated by a screen.

Roger recently Zoomed with a young patient at Phoenix Children’s Hospital who grinned the entire time. Later, a nurse emailed Howell to say, “This was really huge for him. He was so engaged. He loved watching Roger’s tricks. It was incredible.”

“Cheering someone up with your animal is kind of the best feeling in the world,” Howell says. “It’s good to make a connection with people, especially with loneliness with people being so isolated these days.”

Roger is one of thousands of therapy animals continuing to volunteer across America despite restrictions brought about by the pandemic. Over 13,000 therapy animal teams are registered with the nonprofit Pet Partners alone and typically make over three million visits each year.

Elisabeth Van Every, senior communications specialist for Pet Partners, says within a week of lockdowns starting, teams took the initiative to start virtually visiting people in need.

“We’ve heard from a lot of people who have been very glad that they can still make these connections with our therapy animal teams through this kind of visit,” she says.

In fact, shortly after therapy animal teams – which include dogs, cats, equines, rabbits, guinea pigs, llamas, alpacas, birds, miniature pigs, and rats – began Zoom visits, Pet Partners delved into existing research to see if people still benefit from the human-animal bond when in-person interaction isn’t possible.

The answer was a resounding “Yes.” Data published in a Pet Partners white paper found there are still measurable benefits to animal-related activities like virtual therapy animal visits and even crafts, puzzles, or games based on animals. In addition to enhanced mood and general feelings of positivity, people are more likely to get along with one another when they remember their affection for animals.

“Even if it’s not an in-person interaction, those kinds of activities can still have a benefit, which is something that we call animal-related engagement,” Van Every explains.

Therapy animal teams are focusing on boosting the spirits of hospital patients as well as the staff caring for them, particularly healthcare workers directly involved with COVID-19 care.

“Giving them the opportunity to decompress for a while – to have a chat with a therapy animal team, to watch the animal roll around and be adorable, or do some tricks – is an opportunity for stress relief for people who have really been taking the brunt of the stress and trauma of this pandemic,” she says.

Teams have also organized car parades, waved from outside nursing home windows, and mailed cutout photos of therapy dogs to students learning remotely.

“We have been so impressed by the creativity our volunteers have shown throughout this pandemic,” she says. “We are so grateful for these people who are still dedicating their time in the midst of one of the most extraordinary things that has happened in our lifetimes.”

For more information or to volunteer with your pet, visit: petpartners.org

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Award-winning journalist Jen Reeder is former president of the Dog Writers Association of America.
Photos of Roger courtesy Tracy Howell; photo of Petey courtesy Pet Partners.