Pets Together Program

December 14, 2020

To combat the sense of loneliness and sadness many are experiencing due to COVID-19, a national nonprofit is facilitating pet visits to bring people and pets together.

Pets Together was created during the COVID-19 pandemic through the Animal Farm Foundation after safety protocols and restrictions limited opportunities to volunteer in the communities they serve.

Edmond resident Pam Harris rescued her 7-year-old sheltie Molly when she was 4 from the Humane Society of southeast Texas.

This year, they have spent some of their extra time at home making virtual visits through the Pets Together program to assisted living centers, hospitals and treatment facilities.

Prior to the pandemic, Harris and Molly volunteered at hospitals around the metro, including Integris and OU Health, but the pandemic brought those visits to a halt. Through Pets Together’s virtual visits, they are visiting with people from around the country.

Harris said she first heard about Pets Together from an email sent through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, another nationwide group.

“I always felt it was important to give back, and volunteering with Pets Together gives me a chance to do that,” Harris said. “It gives me something fun to do when my husband and I are staying home, so that’s why we do it.”

On a typical call, Harris said there are five or six teams on every call.

She said volunteers have all kinds of pets, including dogs, cats, goats, chickens and horses.

“Even if a facility is visiting with us every week, they never know who to expect on a call,” Harris said.

Harris said some facilities will set up individual visits where staff go from room to room with a tablet, while others put the call on a large screen for a group visit.

One of the entertaining things about the calls, Harris said, is the tricks many dogs perform.

“I have been on calls with dogs who dance, ring bells, there’s even one that plays the piano,” Harris said. “It’s just pretty fun. A lot of the volunteers have more than one animal, so they may have dogs and cats, and it can be funny to watch the interaction.”

Harris said a spare bedroom is set up in their house for the Zoom calls, which Molly knows it’s time to sit down on the couch in the room after she hears the magic phrase.

“I say, ‘Molly, let’s go Zoom Zoom,’ and she will run in here and jump on the couch ready to go,” Harris said. “She knows she gets doggie treats after every visit. Otherwise, she is a total couch potato, but she does know she’s getting ready to Zoom.”

The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and encouraging regarding the difference the visits make in the lives of residents and staff at facilities, Harris said.

“Many have been unable to have visits from family members for months,” Harris said. “What we hear from the facility coordinators is that the residents always want to know when they get to see the dogs on TV again.”

Harris said the program was created during a crucial time when many feel socially isolated during long durations at home due to their own health concerns or fear of infecting others.

“This can be especially problematic for older adults, especially during a pandemic like this,” Harris said. “There has been research that shows that isolation can result in a 29% increased risk of mortality, which is comparable to 15 cigarettes a day.”

Harris referenced a Mayo Clinic study that showed pet therapy can reduce anxiety and increase oxytocin in those that engage in the sessions.

She said Pets Together provides a morale boost to all parties involved from the patients to the caregivers and volunteers.

“I think, for me, it’s just that it’s our small way of sharing love and bringing hope to the world with virtual visits,” Harris said. “People are surprised as to how much joy it brings. It’s effectively a virtual puppy playdate and who doesn’t love puppies.”

The program is growing to the extent that there are more volunteers than facilities reaching out to schedule visits, Harris said.

“There is such a need for facilities to bring that program in, and now they can do it for free,” Harris said. “All they need is a tablet and they are good to go. ”Animals don’t have to be certified as therapy animals to participate,” Harris said. “We would love to have pigs, cows, sheep and donkeys. Whatever type of animals people have, they are welcome to join us.”

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