SW Newsletter #22

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Sep 22nd 2007


Welcome to the latest newsletter and a warm welcome to the new members of the Star Wards’ community. A very happy new year to all our Jewish members and to everyone else who likes to have as many new year celebrations as possible. (May I be the first to wish this latter group a happy Chinese, Macedonian and any other nationality or faith group they like to share with, New Year.) I had an excellent last day of 5767, with news of two wonderful developments. I went to a meeting of Barnet partnership board, part of my  local trust. It turns out that they’re  appointing a Star Wards’ co-ordinator! A national first! And one we hope will be followed by many others around the country.

The day included an email from a medium secure unit in the north which is being  redesigned. The email said: “We are currently developing a new  service and have taken on board your suggestion re seclusion in the  design , we will be having a television/dvd and music system within  our seclusion area.” I spoke to the manager later in the morning and  it turns out that the ‘seclusion room’ will also have a phone!! The TV etc will be via a wall-mounted plasma screen. To introduce our pets’ special, the same hospital has two rabbits, Pepsi and Max. Since their  arrival, there has been “a significant reduction” in incidents of  self-harming. Rabbits should now be mandatory on all wards (except  those with larger pets who might put them on their menu).

What’s the issue that’s raised most issue among Star Wards’ members? The smoking ban? Patients managing our own medication? Nope. It’s pets. (Not a great quiz question given the preceding clues.) The following was kindly contributed by Bren Packard, a Clinical Team Leader at the Bracton Centre, a medium  secure unit in Kent.

We have for the past few years now we’ve had rabbits, guinea pigs, finches, cockatiels and peacocks and we have currently 4 rabbits and 8 guinea pigs.

These are all housed outside. They are now all in the robust hard plastic hutches. the reason being that they can be kept more hygienically, and get jet washed, though they are all cleaned out twice a week, we are concerned about attracting flies etc, and seeing as we are so close to  Dartford heath, do not want to attract myxomatosis. The hutches are all with in a .. how can I describe it.. it is like a fenced dog pound..  sounds awful I know but it is not too un easy on the eye.. we have fixed chicken wire over the top just to prevent foxes getting in. Before when we  had the wooden hutches close to the building, a fox did visit one night.. taking one of our rabbits with.. it was very distressing. but other than that we have been very lucky in that respect.

All the rabbits have been ‘fixed’ and the guinea pigs are all male. They are rarely in their cages During the day  and have an enormous run to spend the days in  with shelter should it rain. Patients take turns to clean out and feed etc.. the job side of it is all very organised.

We have 2 aviaries.. one for the budgies, and cockatiels and one for the finches and canaries. The finches breed very well, but the cockatiels are not so interested. The peacocks are adorable.. they are very tame and though they are not ‘petting’ animals.. they show a lot of trust and bring a lot of pleasure.. they are very beautiful to see and when eggs are being sat on.. everyone shows an interest.. and when the babies hatch. all take an interest in their progress. it is remarkable the response that some of the patients give.

I feel that it is very beneficial to have animals on the ward, but the responsibility must at the end of the day  fall to staff. If patients feel it is a chore or the responsibility is to great for them.. then some one has to ensure that the animals are cared for and indeed patients need to be supported. We did consider having sugar gliders.. but I had to say no to any animals being housed inside the building  due to concerns for allergy amongst the patient group, attracting mice etc if not cared for correctly. Sugar gliders are also nocturnal.. and I don’t think that their being on the ward would add much to the pet experience due to us always trying to encourage patients to get adequate sleep etc.

We did at one point have ferrets  but they were not so friendly.. so I would not recommend them unless they are used to be being handled +++.

A lot is to be gained from pet therapy, and  pet therapy dogs in particular. In the hospital setting it is best to have  dogs visit… these dogs are obviously very sound and will not react in an aggressive manner should they be startled or what ever… but give an unconditional response, which is something that many patients are not used to in life.

One of my patients  who tends the rabbits and the guinea pigs, when he enters their run.. they all come up to him.. it is amazing to watch.. and the way it reinforces his feelings of self worth, and of feeling valued, having a purpose, and being accepted…. who would have thought a few rabbits and squeaky guineas would have raised someone self esteem…. and have paved the way for ‘humans’ to then access his deeper self.

Visitors can spend time in the garden with relatives.. but do not usually handle the animals.. though the patients from other clinics all have the opportunity to input and gain form the pet experience. Rabbits have been taken to other wards for holds and fuss etc,  but again  some patients can be sensitive to the fur.. so any engagement with the animals or birds, follows risk assessment and physical screen by the ward DR.

Many thanks Bren. Our website has two similarly inspiring accounts of the involvement of pets, on our new Pets’ Corner feature. These were kindly contributed by Huntercombe Roehampton’s Louise Helsdown, who you may feel familiar with as it was Louise, along with colleague Advance Tuso, who has produced the staff training manual for Star Wards’ activities. Here’s the link:


There’s a fabulous book about ‘therapy pets’, with a joyous photo on the front cover of a recovering drug addict with his arm around an irresistible dog. Therapy Pets includes accounts as diverse as dogs helping at Ground Zero in the aftermath of September 11th and more familiar riding therapy. I was particularly interested in, and surprised about, involving dogs in individual psychotherapy and physiotherapy sessions.


We look forward to sharing your stories about pets – and photos please!

All the best