Animal Farm Foundation (AFF) has announced the launch of Pets Together, a free virtual program that allows those who are socially isolated due to the COVID-19 pandemic to enjoy friendly interaction with pets (including dogs, cats, goats, horses and other companion animals) and people. The goal of the program is to increase social connection and mitigate the loneliness that is a painful aspect of the pandemic.
AFF is a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing dogs and people together to end discrimination. Using live video-conferencing platforms — such as Zoom, Skype and Google Hangouts — the AFF team schedules real-time visits where people can watch the animals and participate in friendly conversations with those who care for the pets. The Pets Together model greatly expands access to pet visits that have traditionally been reserved for face-to-face interactions for people living in group settings, such as nursing homes and hospitals, through formal therapy animal programs. The video chats are also available to doctors, nurses and other health professionals on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis.
“One of the many effects of the COVID-19 pandemic is social isolation and loneliness, which were already highly prevalent before the crisis” said Stacey Coleman, Executive Director of Animal Farm Foundation. “We designed Pets Together to adapt to these unprecedented circumstances by tapping into the power of pets to spread joy and bring people together.”
Kim Wolf, Master of Public Health and Master of Social Work Candidate at the University of Georgia, worked with AFF to create the innovative Pets Together Program.
“Pets bring us comfort during times of distress, but not everyone is in a position to have one,” Wolf explained. “I can’t imagine going through this pandemic without my pets, so I wanted to share them with others. Pets Together is a model that brings joy and comfort to those who are feeling socially isolated and lonely. We are all in this together, even the pets!”
Even before the pandemic, social isolation was a public health threat negatively impacting the well-being of many individuals, including but not limited to older adults. Now, with the mandate to stay at home to prevent the spread of coronavirus, so many more people are at risk for social isolation — further threatening physical as well as mental health.
Defined as a state in which the individual lacks a sense of belonging socially and engagement with others, social isolation can result in a 29% increased risk of mortality over time, researchers have found. In fact, social isolation is co
mparable with other well-established risk factors such as poor access to health care, exposure to environmental hazards, injury and violence, obesity and physical inactivity, substance misuse and mental health disorders.
“Volunteering for Pets Together enables me to do something worthy, super fun and rewarding during these restricted and challenging times,” explained CJ Kunel. “Through their Zoom calls, Lu
cy — my adorable tiny trick dog — and I bring joy to our nation’s most lonely and vulnerable communities. The joy we give is the joy we
receive! We’re so blessed to be a part of their amazing team."
Jennifer Bashford, a student at Georgia State University, discovered the Pets Together program in early May.
“Since then, I have participated in at least
one volunteer call a day with our little menagerie of rescue dogs,” Bashford said. “It’s been such a gift during these difficult times stuck at home. Even the dogs look forward to their daily camera interaction — all four of them hop on the sofa and scramble to be ‘front and center’ in my lap! I have a graduate degree in gerontology and worked with therapy dogs in the past, so this type of volunteer work is perfect for my background. While virtual meetings aren’t an exact replacement for the real thing, it has been such a joy to interact with residents on a regular basis. Every call is a little different — some facilities go room to room with a handheld screen, allowing for individual conversation, while other places put the video call on a large screen for a group… We never know which animal is going to be the star of the call. One day, it might be a fluffy poodle, the next day a rescue chicken. As a host, I’ve gotten to know a lot of the volunteers and their pets. I love seeing familiar faces every day – CJ and Lucy doing their tricks, Stacy and her naughty goats, and Erich and his 17 dogs, for example. I love seeing cows and horses and alpacas and foster kittens, as well as volunteers of all ages from all parts of the country. If I feel connected just through volunteering, I hope that we’re providing a little of that feeling to the residents.”
Pets Together virtual pet visits are currently available to those living in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, residential treatment programs and other group settings. According to the Animal Farm Foundation, the program is running in 27 states nationwide, as well as one facility in Canada.
“We recognize that people who live in long-term facilities were really probably already feeling isolated even before this pandemic but even more so now because their families can’t visit,” Coleman concluded. “There’s never a formula for how these calls go, but our goal is to break up the monotony of the isolation and reduce some of that loneliness and stress. For example, we had a visit with a woman who loved birds. She would sneak out of her room in the morning and go sit in the lobby so she could sing to the birds in her facility. So on our call with her, she decided that she wanted to sing to our animals, and that was the whole call. I’d also like to think we make the caregivers’ jobs easier. They get insights into their residents’ lives that they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise, and when we watch them interact with their residents on the call, I know we’re making a difference.”