Animal Magic – Introduction

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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.

“My mental health has always got in the way of having children. So my cats are my children. The staff understood this and at the earliest opportunity I got leave to visit them. I also received weekly postcards on how they were doing.”

“Alex Ground Floor, South London and Maudsley, have a dog on the ward for two days per week all day.  We formulated a risk assessment and discussed this with Health and Safety, Infection Control and our senior management before the go ahead.  There have been no problems at all having Max on the ward, in fact he has been a complete success with everyone.  He has motivated patients to exercise, he has also been a great source of conversation with patients and staff.  Feedback from patients and carers has been nothing but positive.  Patients have reported that their mood lifts when he is around and he also has a calming effect on the ward.  I cannot encourage people enough to do this as it has untold benefits for patients.”

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.

“Of all the benefits we have observed, the most important is the increase in social interaction. The animals provide a bridge that can then be used to facilitate the development of the therapeutic relationship.” Alexandra More, State Hospital Scotland

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!

Marion Janner:

When I’m in hospital, the most painful aspect is being separated from my beloved Buddy and I really appreciate all that staff can do for me to continue to be connected with her – visits, photos, conversations and care-planning including agreed leave to go and see her.

One of the aspects of the (ghastly!) ‘asylums’ back in the day that I’d have loved is the animals: the farm, the ward cat, loads of outdoor space to see birds and squirrels and all their mates. Nowadays, wards come up with an impressive range of ways in which patients can have contact with animals and we hope Animal Magic will help greatly increase this valuable aspect of ward life. There are very inspiring examples from America:

Hasbro Children’s Hospital is proud of its Animal Visiting Program, which includes the world’s very first in-hospital zoo!

North Shore University Hospital in Long Island even allows pets to stay overnight with patients in its palliative care unit.

The University of Maryland Medical Center has allowed pet visits since 2008. “Our pets are an integral part of our everyday lives, and they share in our greatest joys and darkest hours,” Rev. Susan Carole Roy, director of pastoral care services at the hospital told the Chicago Tribune. “For patients to be able to re-connect with their pets — even for a short period of time — can really be very meaningful. It allows them to get in touch with a part of their lives that is often lost when they become patients.”

“At Walter Reed Army Medical Center, they’re using dogs to help soldiers dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder,” says Katy Nelson, DVM, associate emergency veterinarian at the VCA Alexandria Animal Hospital in Alexandria, Va. “They’re finding the guys who have a pet are able to re-enter society a little bit easier. They’re showing a decreased suicide rate, one of the biggest health threats [veterans] face. These guys who have a pet have someone they’re responsible for, someone who cares about them. And they don’t have to explain what they’ve been through.”

“Animals can be vitally important for the fringe groups of society; prisoners, the physically challenged, and the mentally ill… Perhaps most important, pets seem to bring out the best

in us. If there is a capacity for affection, compassion, for empathy or tenderness overlooked by our human fellows, a pet has an uncanny ability to ferret it out.”  (Cusack, 1988)

Categories: Animal Magic