Resident ward pets
It’s worth saying again that different wards, and different current patients on a ward require different considerations. Cats and guinea pigs currently top the list of wards’ own pets, with fish (unsurprisingly) the most common pet for patients to have with them. Again unsurprisingly, the greater the commitment (eg having a ward pet), the greater the benefits and it can be best to start off with relatively low-effort animal contact (eg Pets as Therapy dog visiting).
The following are the sorts of things that are important to think about
Patient group issues
- Physical health
- Relationship with animals (eg rural communities have more contact with animals, large and small.)
Patients’ individual issues
- Importance of animals in the person’s life
- Likely therapeutic benefits of contact with animals
- Feeding & care needs
- Attention needed
- Size (including ability to be carried & space needed)
- Gentleness, tolerance
- Responsivity to humans
- Stroking – none, furry, feathery, scaly, soft, rough
- Risks eg:
- Noisiness (barking, spinning round in wheel all night….)
- Potential for injuring people
- Cultural/religious considerations –
Some people avoid going into hospital because they have a pet to care for. They may even go missing to go home because they are concerned about their pets.
- Fish in a sealed aquarium unit which staff will oversee.
- Chickens are starting to be seen amidst the parsnips and petunias on hospital allotments.
- The hospital’s Pets Corner has three guinea pigs.
- We have chickens but no poultry policy as yet!
- One hospital is blessed with beautiful, extensive, wrap-around grounds, including steep banks which are difficult to mow, so they’re considering getting sheep!
- Garden designed to attract wild life – birds, bees, butterflies and the odd squirrel!
- We’re a male Medium Secure Unit which has a huge enclosure for rescue chickens. The men identify with the chickens – both the freedom they have compared to how life used to be for them (giving the men hope for their eventual release) and that they are still not free to roam wherever they want. Above all, the chickens give the men a sense of purpose, satisfaction, responsibility and interest. The eggs are sold to pay for the cost of feeding and caring for the chickens, so management don’t complain about the costs!
Pets visiting the ward
The two most popular arrangements are staff bringing in their dogs for the day and linking up with the local Pets as Therapy group so that a volunteer and trained pet (usually a dog) visit regularly. This video from CNWL describes the positive effects PAT dog visits have on patients. (Confusingly, this Buddy is not Star Wards’ Buddy, but also totally delightful.)
Some wards have imaginatively got round the problem experienced by most wards of being on a waiting list for a PAT visitor for months or longer, by staff registering their own dogs with Pets as Therapy and bringing them in on that basis. The American Psychiatric Association reports that Animal- Assisted Therapy was associated with reduced state anxiety levels for hospitalized patients with a variety of psychiatric diagnoses. There are a zillion (well, lots anyway) of research studies and books providing compelling evidence and moving examples of the disproportionate benefits that hospital patients experience from being with animals. A good summary of them can be found here.
The annual Bring Your Dog to Work Day is an ideal opportunity to have doggy visitors and happy patients and some hospitals have special Animal Days where creatures from local farms, or with specialised companies (such as Zoolab) visit. This is what happened at a mental health hospital where visiting animals included this outrageously beautiful (and of course tame!) snake. (We’re grateful to patients and staff for giving us permission to use this photo.)
A lower-key version of this is to ask local animal and wildlife experts and enthusiasts to come and talk with patients eg from:
- Dogs Trust, Cats Protection, RSPCA, PDSA, RSPB and other animal charities
- Your local Wildlife Trust
- Animal rescue centres
- Zoos, wildlife parks, aquariums, bird parks, farms, nature reserves, animal sanctuaries
To celebrate the opening of their new Therapeutic Community, Harrison House invited along… a pony! Here’s a photo of Marion enjoying the ride with two HH wonderstaff – Ellie Walsh and Suzanne Brown.
- A Labrador came to visit us quite often and we took it out for a walk. Pet therapy helps.
- I cried when we had a talk from the Dog’s Trust lady. But it was a relief to cry about something from the ‘real world’.
- We had a pets and animal day. I love watching animals and wondering if they ever question their own sanity or if they are even aware of it.
- Many wards have Pets as Therapy dogs visiting (although many more linger on waiting lists).
- We have a pets for patients visit on a regular basis (acute psych ward) there hasn’t been any particular problems…. patients just seem to see it as “a dog”! The ward domestic appreciates it, as it hoovers-up during the visit.
- 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.
- The Head of Therapies brings in her dog who the patients take for walks and practice training techniques. There is a hamster which plays an important role in enabling patients to regain their equilibrium. The patients have also started having horse riding lessons which has been very popular and a great mood lifter.
- A member of staff guide dog ‘’Tom’’ is a regular visitor to the ward.
- There’s a kennel in the ward garden, with a plaque for George Junior above the door. The eponymous part-time resident is a whopping Great Dane, ‘Pets as Therapy’ registered dog. His human is an OT and George Junior enjoys taking patients for runs around the garden and nearby.
- Have a physio Assistant who brings her dog into the unit one day a week (it even has its own I.D. name badge on its collar), and she runs a long-established ‘dog walking’ group.
- “One of our porters brings her dogs to work. She leaves them in the car with the boot open and a safety mesh on and we get a group of patients and take the dogs for a walk around the grounds. It is good exercise for the patients and the dogs and it also helps bring the patients together. It’s also a good bonding session. It helps builds their confidence as we often notice that the quiet and slightly withdrawn patients will take charge of the dogs leads and this helps bring them out of themselves a bit. We also have a good chat and a laugh over who is going to be in charge of the poop scoop!”
- A hugely popular animals’ day was held, with visitors ranging from reptiles to rodents. Patients bravely and enjoyably cuddled even the slithery snake.
- We invited a falconer to the ward. He brought 5 birds with him. The patients were able to interact with the birds at close range, and were allowed to feed them and fly them from perches on their wrists. The photographs taken that day are prominently displayed on the ward. The patients were so delighted by this close encounter that the falconer has been invited to make a return visit in May.
- Visiting birds of prey – very popular.
- Falconry training takes place in grounds
- [Welcoming pets on wards is] not before time and would have a huge impact on our service users., we have our own, search/sniffer dog and she visits wards and service users when she’s not working also and has been used very successfully to help a gentleman who was extremely unwell mentally to go to the local hospital as he wouldn’t leave the PICU before and he travelled with the dog and she visited him in the general Hospital also!! We had tried everything to try and persuade him to go to hospital before that and she had the magic touch so to speak, I’m a huge fan of pets on wards.
- Having a pre-training Guide Dog puppy.
Wildlife is the new mindfulness! It can be totally absorbing and satisfying to watch birds, bunnies, squirrels – even insects can be fascinating, with spiders’ webs a miracle of engineering, art, architecture as well as a super-effective hunting creation. Butterflies are a joy to watch and lots of plants can help attract them into the garden. Tiverton Hospital have embraced the health benefits of making a wildlife garden, and all wards can attract more wildlife visitors by doing easy things like having bird-feeders and nestboxes.
Many wards, especially those in rural locations, are blessed with a wondrous array of wildlife just outside, much of which can be enjoyed by gazing out of the windows. Horses, sheep, cows, rabbits… And a colourful, often choral range of enchanting birds. Even urban wards will have creatures that patients, staff and visitors can enjoy.
The simplest, low/no cost experiences with animals are through making the most of whatever wildlife is in the garden/car park/fields/sky/trees outside the hospital.
Visiting animals off-site
As you’ll see from the examples below, wards have found all sorts of ways to enable patients who have leave to go off-site to enjoy being with animals. And there are lots of local visiting opportunities, offering more exotic experiences than the abundant wildlife in local parks and gardens, including:
- wildlife parks
- bird parks
- nature reserves
- animal sanctuaries
And of course woods, fields and all the other outdoor places where it’s possible to see stunning wildlife. The Wildlife Trusts has an inspiring website feature about places to see wildlife and your local Wildlife Trust can tell you about fab places near the hospital. They might also be happy to come and give a talk to patients.
- Patients access the local dogs home for volunteer work and also to pet the animals.
- Patients visit the local city farm to help with animal care
- Horse-riding. This happens quite often in private sector hospitals but it’s worth checking if you have a local Riding for the Disabled group which could provide rides or other contact for some patients. Equine Assisted Therapy for people with mental illness is becoming increasingly well-established: A relationship developed with a horse can offer challenges to help overcome fears, build up trust, respect, compassion, develop communication skills, problem solving & coping techniques, self confidence and self esteem. These skills are transferrable to many other areas of ordinary day to day life.
- Patients have access to Local RSPCA dog-walking scheme.
- Occasional visits from keepers of reptiles/unusual pets
Animals in the community
Alternatives to resident pets
This elephant adoption is a particularly imaginative way of connecting patients with animals – although it must be said that the magnificent State Hospital also have an extensive animal therapy programme, much referred to on this website. For some wards, it isn’t possible at the moment for patients to have much contact with animals, even their own pets, and creative alternatives can be a help in bridging the gap.
Firstly there are animal-themed activities – 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 in ward examples below. 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.
Then there are animal substitutes – a rather questionable old piece of research suggested it was possible to identify patients with Borderline Personality Disorder by looking for those who have soft toys in hospital with them! (However dodgy this theory is, I do have BPD and do indeed bring a toy bunny or dog with my when I’m admitted!) For many patients, such a small thing as having a cuddly animal toy with us is disproportionately comforting and we explore some of the issues on Wardipedia in the ‘comfort objects’ feature.
And, inspired by the State Hospital’s adoption scheme, some wards or individual patients may want to fundraise for an animal charity.
- A pets wall within the ward for staff or service users to put up pictures of their pets to create a discussion point and brighten up the ward!!
- A ‘virtual pets corner ‘ i.e. developing a pet photo display of patients’ and staffs’ pets and wards sponsoring an animal e.g. a retired donkey or a guide dog
- Occupational Therapy encourage the use of pet photographs, and encourage the sharing of pet stories and pictures within the recovery sessions. Photographs can be enlarged and placed on display boards, or placed within an individual’s Wellness Recovery Action plan ‘Box of Delights’.
- Within Occupational Therapy we promote the ‘celebration’ of pets, and have a pet wall, like a ‘Hall of Fame’ for photos of service users pets. We encourage people to put photos of their pets in their Wellness Recovery Action Plans, as well as pieces of writing about why their pet is so important to them.