Animal Magic – FAQs

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I’ve got a dog and cat so am definitely an animal lover. But we’re so over-stretched (including financially) that the idea of pets on our ward feels overwhelming.

We really appreciate how much pressure you are under. First of all, there are many ways in which patients can have contact with animals; anything from encouraging patients to talk about the meaning of animals in their lives through to having a resident bunny rabbit. Pets can be as low-key and low-cost as a goldfish, or a major feature of ward life with a cat or dog. The important thing is to plan.

We truly appreciate your financial difficulties and desire to make this happen. Most obstacles, including being strapped for cash, can be addressed with the creativity and compassion which characterise ward staff’s wonderfulness. Even a tiny investment can reap massive positive benefits for patients. It might be worth considering using other budgets if you can, such as Occupational Therapy, or running a fundraising event. There’s very likely an ideal option on this site for your ward, a lot of which are free. Although actual, real-life furry/finny/funny pets are the best, if that isn’t possible then there are all sorts of imaginative ways of including animals in ward life, from photos to soft toys. Wards have found that the effort needed to help patients have contact with and conversations about animals is repaid many times over by the benefits (calmness, safety, happiness) that this brings.


You seem very certain that this is all a wonderful thing. Are you biased because of Marion’s support dog Buddy?!

Buddy has strongly influenced our belief in the value of contact with animals – not because we looooove her, but because she’s had a transformative effect on the ward atmosphere during the many visits she’s made. There’s a massive evidence base (see reference section) on the benefits and the including research showing that contact with animals can result in considerable boost in:

  • self-esteem
  • hope
  • motivation
  • concentration
  • satisfaction
  • reduction of anxiety
  • wellbeing
  • social competence
  • interest

One of the reasons patients leave the ward without permission is to visit their pets at home. So ward practices which reassure patients about their pets’ welfare and, wherever possible, enable them to have contact with their pet should help reduce the incidents of patients going missing.


A previous ward manager was really keen on getting a guinea pig for the ward but our Infection Control team simply said a big no.

We’re very happy to tell you that this is a BIG MYTH that animals aren’t allowed on mental health wards. The guidance from CQC is very clear – pets are allowed provided this is carefully risk-assessed and in line with hospital policy. But to put everyone’s mind at rest, formulate a risk assessment and discuss this with Health and Safety, Infection Control and senior management before introducing an animal. There are some excellent hospital policies, so you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. There are also great examples from wards about managing infection control issues on the page titled ‘Pets are definitely allowed on wards!’ The head of infection control at the RCN provided the reassuring guidance on this page, in addition to confirming there is nothing in the legislation which prohibits animals on wards – or indeed mentions animals! So it’s really down to the discretion of individual organisations to look into the realities of infection risks. It’s true that some animals may be rightly refused on grounds of infection risk, but there are many different animal options as offered throughout this site.


What about poo?

As well as being fed, having their living space cleaned, wounds attended, all animals do need poo picked up and other unglamorous tasks! And most will simply need time and attention for their emotional well-being, just like us humans. Dogs and cats must be house trained. The animal should only be allowed in non-clinical areas, and NEVER be allowed in the kitchen or clinical areas. As we mentioned previously, before you introduce an animal take some time to plan; put in place procedures for infection control and prevention, namely hygiene measures, disposal of animal waste, cleaning and disinfection. Disposable gloves and plastic aprons are to be worn by the pet handler when cleaning up animal urine and faeces. All waste material should be disposed of immediately as clinical waste – in a sealed yellow clinical waste bag. An animal that is clean and healthy, has all required immunisations, is temperamentally suitable and predictable should be chosen. Be sure that the animal has predictable and controlled bowl movements. It might be easier to contain the poo (and wee!) of animals like rabbits and guinea pigs. The (supervised) cleaning out of a pet’s home can be an enjoyable and rewarding activity for patients.


We have elderly, frail patients and the idea of a dog bouncing around the ward is alarming!

Again, an animal that has predictable and controlled behaviour is preferable. Avoid bringing onto any the ward bouncing dogs where they could cause an accident. The wonderful thing about PAT dogs is that they would have been vetted (see what we did there?) for their gentleness and are hugely popular visitors on wards for elderly patients. There are lots of ways to enable elderly patients to have contact with and conversations about animals, including their own pets. Wards are really creative in enabling patients to have contact with and conversations about animals, as you can see from the glorious list of examples on the ‘how’ page. Animal soft toys can be cuddly, comforting companions for many older (and younger!) patients. You are the best judge about whether or not it’s safe for an animal to come onto the ward. If it isn’t, there are animal-themed activities which can provide an alternative – arts and crafts, DVDs, YouTube, discussions about the role animals do or don’t play in people’s lives and the sorts of displays described on the ‘alternatives to resident pets’ page. In particular, most days there are programmes about animals and wildlife on at least one channel and these are great opportunities to get conversations going. Contact with animals can take many forms, all of which are beneficial. For example, research has shown decreased pulse rate, increased skin temperature, and decreased muscle tension in elderly people watching an aquarium.


I’d be keen to have pets visit our ward but am worried about the pets. Our ward is always so frenetic and some patients can be aggressive but my main concern is that patients will want to give the pet all sorts of food that isn’t good for them.

We appreciate your thoughtfulness. You’re right, the welfare of animals on wards is crucial. Here are a few pointers. All interactions between patients and animals must be supervised at all times. Be watchful of everyone’s behaviour – human and animal alike. Get a good match of temperaments of animals and humans accordingly. Put time boundaries around the contact – for example, no more than an hour to prevent the pet getting stressed. Try to be attentive to any signs of stress exhibited by the animal. In your policy state whether or not feeding animals is allowed and if so, the type of food, the times they can be fed and the quantity. Visiting dogs could be kept on lead, so their human is with them all the time to prevent mishaps. See the ‘Keeping animals happy, healthy and safe’ page for more ideas.


I can see how beneficial having a dog or cat visiting the ward would be for most patients, but what about those with allergies, or people (including some staff!) who are terrified of animals, or patients who have religious objections to some animals?

These can all seem like impossible obstacles, but wards have found lots of creative ways to enable contact with animals for those people who want it, and avoiding contact for those who don’t. The good news is that there are practical ways round the fact that some patients definitely won’t want contact with animals because of allergies, phobias, religious beliefs and other factors. The hospital will need to have a policy and procedures in place for assistance dogs, as there is a legal requirement for disabled people to be accompanied by their assistance dogs. The good practice in this policy can also be used to help plan for and manage visits by other animals. In your policy, you might want to state that when and if a patient has an allergy or phobia, the visiting animal is kept in a room away from patients at risk and only those who are able to would spend time in the allocated room.

There are some obvious religious taboos with certain animals, and these needs to be respected, no question! But there are thankfully many more animals out there are many religions also have a great respect for animals.


Our ward has been on a waiting list for a Pets as Therapy dog visitor for over two years! Any ideas for speeding things up?

The best solution we’ve seen is where a member of staff gets their dog or cat approved by Pets as Therapy and can then bring them along to the ward on their shift. Take a look here for more info. It’s also possible that the local PAT scheme hasn’t had experience of their volunteers visiting mental health wards and may have unfounded concerns. So perhaps you could invite them to visit so they can see for themselves that this is a safe and rewarding place for the volunteer and pet to visit?


Are all pets therapeutic?

This completely depends on the type and nature of a particular animal and the needs, likes, fears etc of humans they have contact with. So it’s sort of subjective. There are degrees of ‘therapeuticness’, even if this isn’t a real word! Stroking and playing with a visiting dog has different benefits to having responsibility for feeding the ward fish, and some therapists use animals in a very structured way as part of psychotherapeutic treatment.


How should we ‘test’ to find out whether or not a dog is appropriate to let loose on the ward? Do they need to formally PAT qualified?

No dog should be ‘let loose’ on the ward! Even Pets as Therapy dogs and assistance dogs are always kept on a lead. With other visiting dogs, such as patients’ own dogs, the best arrangement is for the dog to be met in the ward/hospital garden or grounds and taken for a stroll. Depending on the situation, it might be that a member of staff needs to be present but often the relative or friend bringing the dog is sufficient to ensure the patient’s, dog’s and others’ well-being.


I love the idea of introducing animals and pets to the ward but the majority of the staff team seem quite cynical whenever I bring up the idea. What can I do or say to win them over?

Show them the feature on why animals are so beneficial! In particular, the resource from the State Hospital Scotland is full of not just the benefits but also minimising the risks and hassle of patient contact with animals and how to make arrangements.

You could also have a meeting where patients describe the importance of animals to them and perhaps invite someone from an animal organisation to talk about the therapeutic benefits of the animal-human bond. But what always works best is for staff to speak to other staff who were initially sceptical, perhaps from a nearby hospital or Star Wards can put you in touch with ‘animal converts’!

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Categories: Animal Magic