Heather Hauser is a stay-at-home mom with an extra special hobby: She’s a Pet Handler at Pet Partners, a national nonprofit organization that trains volunteer handlers and their certified therapy animals to visit with recovering hospital patients, students, senior citizens, people with intellectual disabilities, veterans with PTSD, and more. Hauser is a pet parent to seven guinea pigs, three of which are trained as therapy pets. For our May 2020 Pets package, we talked with her about her involvement in Pet Partners and why guinea pigs make such great therapy pets.
Tell me about your guinea pigs and how they became your pets.
I bought my first two guinea pigs for my daughters for Christmas in 2017. We got two females, Elsa and Anna. We noticed Elsa getting fatter and fatter, and it turned out she was pregnant from the pet store—and a “teenage pregnancy” at that because she was only a few months old herself. She gave birth to three adorable babies: Olaf, Kristoff, and Tiana. I had Olaf and Kristoff neutered so that they could each live with a female in separate groups since that’s what is most natural for them.
A few months later, I was browsing a rescue online and saw Rapunzel and Belle and thought, I have five guinea pigs, what’s two more? Rapunzel’s gorgeous long hair was so unique I had to have her, and she came with her sister Belle, who was the sweetest thing ever. Belle tragically and suddenly passed away of what we think was a heart attack or stroke this past February.
In fall 2018, I was at a pet store and saw sweet little hairless Jasmine and had to have her so I could complete my collection and have short-haired, long-haired, and hairless. Jasmine is known as a skinny pig. The hairlessness was a genetic mutation found in lab animals in the 1970s; they continued breeding them that way to do product testing on their skin. Sad, I know. Now they’re just weird little pets for guinea pig enthusiasts like me!
Tell me about your involvement in Pet Partners.
I met a man during jury duty who was involved with Pet Partners, and I was so excited to hear that they evaluated and registered guinea pigs as therapy pets! I knew the power of these little creatures from when I was a special education teacher and would bring in my guinea pig at the time, Penny. I had a student who was in a wheelchair and nonverbal, and when I put Penny on his chest he would light up smiling and giggling.
There are about 30 therapy guinea pigs nationwide in the Pet Partners organization. I decided to work with Rapunzel to be my first therapy pet and the first therapy guinea pig in the Greater Cincinnati area. Her training was mostly me handling her a lot and taking her to places with a lot of people and noise to get her comfortable in those situations. Rapunzel passed the test with the highest rating, and a few months later Belle and Jasmine passed their tests, and most recently Olaf.
Pet Partners registers nine different species of animals: dogs, cats, birds, guinea pigs, rabbits, rats, horses, pigs, and llamas—although most of the animals are the traditional therapy dog. Having a guinea pig as a therapy pet provides a different opportunity for the people I visit. Some people are afraid of dogs or bigger animals, so a guinea pig is perfect. They’re portable, and I can bring them to any height, from kids sitting on the floor to a hospital bed or wheelchair to people standing in a crowded waiting room.
What makes your guinea pigs good therapy pets?
Each of my therapy guinea pigs has their own strengths as a therapy pet. Rapunzel, with her long hair, is a showstopper. She is very soft, and it’s therapeutic and calming to play with her long fur. She is great in calmer situations but gets a little nervous in crowded or loud situations. Belle was the best therapy pet; she was sweet and calm in any situation and great with large groups of children. Jasmine the skinny pig may not be the traditional soft, furry therapy pet that most people think of, but she’s a very interesting distraction from whatever people are going through. Her skin is very soft to pet, and the fuzzy fur on her nose makes her so adorable! Jasmine also gives kisses when you make kissy noises at her. Olaf, the newest therapy guinea pig, is very social and inquisitive. He wants to smell and sometimes lick everyone he meets. He will stretch his little neck to see what’s going on around him.
What kinds of activities do you and your therapy guinea pigs do through Pet Partners?
We currently visit all the St. Elizabeth hospitals on a regular basis. We visit the surgery area, where the piggies provide a fun distraction and comfort to those who are about to have surgery and their families while they’re waiting to hear about their loved ones. We visit cancer treatment areas at St. Elizabeth, where the patients can hold and pet the guinea pig while receiving treatment. We also visit patient rooms and other areas of the hospital when requested, and I can’t forget the nurses and staff at St. Elizabeth, who need the therapy just as much as the patients.
I go to Transitions Residential Treatment Center twice a month to visit group therapy sessions and give the residents a break from the hard work of overcoming their addictions. The first time I visited there, I walked into the men’s group and I was the only woman in a room of 30–40 tough-looking men while holding my tiny little animal. I must admit it was a little intimidating, but once they saw Rapunzel, they all turned into little boys talking baby talk to her and petting her luxurious hair. Another story that stands out to me was a young woman holding Jasmine and loving her little hairless body as she was working on writing goals for her sober life after treatment. She connected with Jasmine so much that she wrote “skinny pig” on her list and said she was getting one when she got out. I was so honored that little Jasmine could be a small part of the motivation for someone to get and stay sober.
I recently started visits at the Family Nurturing Center. We hang out in the waiting room, and the children can play with the guinea pig while they wait for their appointment. It’s so nice to see the kids happy and smiling before and after they have to go into therapy and confront something terrible that’s happened to them. The staff and therapists there also have a lot of stress and need a little guinea pig love every now and then.
We do special events at all the Procter & Gamble locations, Fidelity, University of Cincinnati, and Xavier University, as well as other special events in the area. I love traveling the tristate with my piggies, making people smile and spreading joy. I have met so many wonderful people through Pet Partners of Greater Cincinnati. I love the organization so much that I had to get more involved, so I’m now on the membership committee, captain of UC and Xavier Pet Partner visits, an evaluation assistant, a mentor, and in charge of setting up mentors for new members.
As a stay-at-home mom, this has given me something to call my own besides being a mom to my two amazing daughters. I feel that it’s truly a calling for me and I’m doing God’s work through my little animals.