How therapy animals brought comfort and joy in pandemic year

In this dark year, pets have brightened the lives of both their families and strangers. The purrs of cats in laps and wagging tails of dogs have brought comfort to millions of Americans having to social distance from other people.Because therapy animal handlers believe so strongly in the healing power of pets, in pre-pandemic times they volunteer to take their dogs and cats to hospitals, schools, assisted living facilities, airports, funeral homes, dentist offices and other places where animals can help reduce stress and offer support. For the nonprofit Pet Partners alone, around 13,000 therapy animal teams make more than 3 million visits each year in communities across the country.

So when the coronavirus pandemic shut down most in-person visits, therapy animal teams didn’t give up. They just got creative.

“It has been an unusual circumstance where what is best for people’s health during a pandemic (isolating to stay safe) is in direct conflict with how we operate to bring the benefits of therapy animals to people, and visiting in person hasn’t been an option in most places,” Elisabeth Van Every, senior communications specialist at Pet Partners, told TODAY in an email. “But now more than ever people need joy, comfort, and uplifting, and these wonderful therapy animals and their handlers have found new ways to bring the power of pets to those in need.”

Possibly the best use of old jeans ever: a lap pillow.

Here are some of the special ways therapy animal teams managed to spread cheer this year.

They wagged from outside windows at assisted living facilities.

Pet Partners team Debra Bianchini and therapy dog Brutus make a window visit to Bianchini's dad at a nursing facility in Cheshire, Connecticut.Courtesy of Debra Bianchini

They paraded outside of hospitals for nurses and doctors.

Therapy dog Cody participates in a therapy pet parade at Bridgeport Hospital in Milford, Connecticut.Courtesy of Michael Scagliarini

They Zoomed , of course.

Lulu, an English Mastiff, sits pretty during a virtual video visit.Courtesy of Sara Fuerst

They put their feline curiosity to good use outside of hospitals.

Therapy cat Pearl makes a window visit at a hospital in Cleveland, Ohio.Courtesy of Geralyn Hawk

They “cloned” themselves.

Marley's life-size cutout brings comfort to families of hospice patients in the Nashville area.Courtesy of Julie McCutcheon

They offered their bellies to hospital staff working tirelessly during the pandemic.

Therapy dog Zest provides comfort to healthcare workers at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center in Burlington, Massachusetts.Courtesy of Patti Betti

They smiled from decorated cars at residents in senior living communities.

Therapy dog Theo takes part in a drive-through visit at Abbotswood at Irving Park in Greensboro, North Carolina.Courtesy of Elizabeth B. Kuoni

They showed gratitude to our men and women in uniform.

Therapy dog Rhett visits the Colorado National Guard's Unified Command Center during a Pet Partners Animal-Assisted Crisis Response deployment.Teri Fotheringham Photography

INTERESTING FACT ABOUT YOUR PET: Nearly 80 million U.S. households have a pet, and 42 percent of those households have more than one, according to a 2015-2016 survey by the APPA. There are 77.8 million pet dogs in the U.S. and 85.8 million pet cats.

They proved that our precious pets always give 100%.