A women’s forensic unit in the north introduced a bunny rabbit and the level of self-harming fell by 50%.
Yes! A cute, fluffy animal was able to achieve something that would probably be tough for even the most amazing ward staff to achieve. The bunny is far from unusual in this incredible capacity. The evidence base is huge and compelling and the apparent obstacles preventing mental health inpatients from having contact with animals can be addressed with the creativity and compassion which characterise ward staff’s wonderfulness.
We describe how and why animals are so wonderful for people’s mental, physical and social wellbeing in this section so this introduction is but a small taster.
Our Top Ten Pet Points are:
Pets are definitely allowed onto wards! The Care Quality Commission and the Department of Health have confirmed this, with the simple and important requirement that this fits in with Trust policy and with patients’ needs and care plans.
The evidence base for the therapeutic benefits of contact with animals is huge and compelling.
There are several excellent Trust policies on animals, listed in the resources section below eg N E Lincs Policy for Pets on Inpatient Mental Health Suites
The State Hospital in Scotland, a high secure unit, is blessed with a Pet Therapy Centre. Brilliantly they’ve produced a beautiful, inspiring and practical guide to the therapeutic use of pets in mental health hospitals – Animals as Therapy in Mental Health.
Contact with animals can be on the ward (with resident or visiting pets), off the ward but within the hospital (usually with animals in the garden or a mini-farm) or off site (eg patients helping out at local rescue centres or farms.)
Pets can be as low-key and low-cost as a goldfish, or a major feature of ward life with a cat or dog. Small furry things (hamsters, guinea pigs) are a great compromise and patients, staff and visitors get much pleasure from caring for and playing with them.
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 important thing is to plan for this – eg by having a pet shared between several wards so that if one ward can’t house the pet for a period, another one can.
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. (And we’d welcome your feedback about challenges you face with patients having contact with animals.)
Conversely, animals can be used as a structured part of therapy, through Animal Assisted Therapy.
For many of us, our pets are an integral part of our family so it really helps when this is recognised in care plans, home leave, visits and everyday conversation.
Staff benefit too! A 2005 study by Baker and colleagues revealed reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol in healthcare professionals after as little as 5 minutes interacting with a therapy dog.
A year-long study (Lee, 1987) in a forensic psychiatric hospital in America on the benefits of animal assisted therapy showed a 50% reduction in medication, and lower levels of violence for the AAT group compared with the group who had none. A ward with pets had no incidents of serious self-harm; a similar ward with no pets had eight. Wow!