Experts reveal how rabbits and even snakes could help ease depression
Any dog lover will tell you their Bichon Frise or St Bernard makes them smile.
But the NHS is also increasingly turning to animals to help relieve a number of medical conditions, from anxiety to Alzheimer’s.
And it’s not just dogs. Here in Britain, skunks are being used to calm schizophrenia patients, snakes are helping those with bipolar disorder and chinchillas are prompting memories in people with dementia.
Called animal assisted therapy (AAT), qualified trainers take animals into hospital wards and care homes to interact with patients.
Just last week, a study of 643 parents by the Centres for Disease Control in the U.S. reported that children with pet dogs had a ‘decreased probability of childhood anxiety’
Just last week, a study of 643 parents by the Centres for Disease Control in the U.S. reported that children with pet dogs had a ‘decreased probability of childhood anxiety’.
And in 2013, a study in the journal American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry found that ten weeks of animal assisted therapy, using dogs halted the progression of depression, agitation and aggression in dementia patients living in a care home.
Ten years ago, NICE recognised it as a suitable intervention for dementia patients, but highlighted that more research was needed.
Only now is it becoming a mainstream therapy, says Dale Preece Kelly, who runs Critter Assisted Therapy in Worcestershire and works in the NHS and private psychiatric hospitals.
He says animals have a remarkable ability to calm even the most traumatised patients, helping them talk about their feelings more than they do in conventional therapy.
This may be because they are less likely to feel judged, says Penelope Johnson, a chartered psychologist from the University of Sunderland, who is researching the benefits of equine therapy — where patients interact with horses.
‘Patients, especially with mental health issues, often feel they can form a relationship with an animal that is more honest because they do not fear they are being categorised as someone with a mental health problem,’ she says.
Different animals are suited to different conditions.
People with bipolar disorder — where patients experience extreme depressive lows and manic highs — are often drawn to snakes, according to Dale Preece Kelly, who runs Critter Assisted Therapy in Worcestershire
‘Patients with paranoid schizophrenia often like skunks because they are the same size and shape as a cat but will not jump immediately off your lap and further damage your self-esteem,’ says Dale Preece Kelly.
‘They can stroke them — which releases endorphins — and distracts schizophrenia patients from the voices in their head.’
And patients need not worry about their famously unpleasant smell, which they only release when they fear they will die, he says.
‘They just smell like cats and are very clean.’ Meanwhile, horses may be suitable for conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety.
Patients with paranoid schizophrenia often like skunks, Dale Preece Kelly says
‘This is because they are large, flighty animals who will run away from aggressive and overly anxious behaviour,’ explains Dr Johnson.
‘They are intuitive and “read” human body language, so if you are calm, they are calm, too — that forces patients to think about their behaviour and relax.’
Rabbits, rats and guinea pigs are among the visitors to mental health wards at Tameside General Hospital, Ashton-under-Lyne and Birch Hill Hospital, Rochdale.
‘The patients we work with often can’t cope with a huge amount of stimulation, so animal therapy, because it’s such a calm activity, is great,’ says Sharon Hall, a trained mental health nurse, who runs Noah’s ART, an ATT company based in Manchester.
Lizards, snakes and tortoises can be seen crawling the grounds of private psychiatric hospitals in Birmingham.
People with bipolar disorder — where patients experience extreme depressive lows and manic highs — are often drawn to snakes, says Dale Preece Kelly.
‘They have a massaging effect as they slither over you,’ he says.
‘It’s three-fold because you feel the cold of its skin, its weight — which can be 20kg if it’s boa constrictor — and the movement itself. That provides the sense of thrill that manic patients often crave.’
Dementia patients have different requirements.
Lizards, snakes and tortoises can be seen crawling the grounds of private psychiatric hospitals in Birmingham. Dementia patients tend to favour ferrets and tortoises
‘Because they are older, dementia patients love ferrets and tortoises because those animals were very popular pets in the Fifties and Sixties and bring back childhood memories,’ he says.
‘They also like chinchillas, which sometimes remind them they had a wonderful chinchilla fur coat or that they worked for someone who did.
‘I once met a man who suddenly remembered he used to be a taxidermist when he saw my Irish wolfhound. He told me he used to keep a camel in a freezer at home.’
Dr Johnson says it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why this type of therapy works, but says the handler plays a role, too.
‘The animal is a conduit for connecting people and it becomes a very social interaction,’ he says. ‘Pets give people a reason for living — something to care for and talk to.’