Everyone has examples of how life has changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before the coronavirus hit the nation, Gwyneth Hayes had a regular routine as a volunteer for Caring Hearts Pet Therapy in Middletown, Pennsylvania. She would bring a combination of her five cats to a nursing home on the second Thursday of every month, as well as make weekly trips to the Middletown Public Library.
With the current quarantine putting a hold on in-person visits for the time being, Hayes and her cats — Chase, Darius, Gus, John David and Phil — have been doing their uplifting work via regular posts to Facebook.
Taking the place of the regular library visit is a new video segment dubbed “Tales to T.A.I.L.S. (Therapy Animals Improving Literacy Skills),” which Hayes launched April 7.
“Good evening,” Hayes says at the start of the first clip, which shows Darius sitting inside a cardboard box throughout. “Tuesday is usually reserved for the Middletown library, but because of everything going on, we cannot go to the library and listen to our friends sharing their stories. So we’re going to share a story with our friends.” Hayes proceeds to read “Said the Kitty to the Cat” by Vincent Spada.
“These children look forward to it,” Hayes said of the Tuesday session at the library. “It helps their skills and their confidence with their reading, so I thought, ‘What better way to try this than on their Facebook page?’ It seems to be a pretty big hit.”
Hayes says the motivating factor to become involved with pet therapy — previously with an American Red Cross animal assistance therapy program, then with Caring Hearts Pet Therapy since February 2015 — was the opportunity to “give back to people who can’t get out, especially those in nursing homes and hospitals.”
“A lot of time they are there and don’t have access to their own family, or the family has put them there and they’re kind of forgotten,” she added. “So to be able to bring that ray of sunshine to somebody else in a difficult time is great.”
Preparing cats for therapy work is all about exposure, says Hayes, who came up with her strategy through reading and drawing from her training as a certified vet technician.
“Cats are judged more difficultly than dogs; they’re scrutinized more,” she said. “My cats start off as show cats, where they experience some people handling them. Sometimes we’re at pet expos, so they get used to all these [different] sights and smells.”
Once her cats adjust to road travel, Hayes will take them “anywhere that an animal can go legally with a leash on. So then they’re exposed to the public, and then I encourage the public to pet them and give them treats so they get a positive reinforcement from it.”
Not all felines are fit for therapy work, though: “It’s all about knowing your pet, which is the important thing. You ultimately don’t want to stress out your animals just for your own greater good.”
Reaction has been good so far to the cat content she has posted online during the coronavirus pandemic, with lots of likes on Facebook as well as private messages.
Something as simple as her 8-year-old Chase purring — a sound Hayes describes with a laugh as “obnoxiously loud” — can go a long way in providing a much-needed boost.
She recalls a woman who “seemed down in the dumps,” and in a private message, Hayes asked if everything was OK and whether there was anything she could do remotely for her.
“And she said that just hearing Chase purr was the gold she needed that day,” Hayes said.
Like Hayes is doing with her cats, other Caring Hearts Pet Therapy volunteers are offering virtual therapy with their animals (lots of dogs, and there’s even a horse). Click here to see images and videos.