Any pet owner will tell you, owning and interacting with animals on a regular basis has a significant emotional benefit, which comes from the companionship a pet offers and has positive therapeutic effects. Studies have shown those who regularly interact with animals experience increased serotonin levels, improved self-esteem and a reduction decrease in depression and stress levels.
Aberbeeg Hospital in Wales welcomed donkeys and goats to their site in September 2019 and found they had a significant positive effect on both service users and the on-site staff team.
To mark National Pet Month, we spoke to Lisa Bytheway, Activities Coordinator and Wellbeing Champion at Aberbeeg Hospital about how the animals on site have helped patients and the benefits they bring to supporting their mental health and rehabilitation.
How are the animals used to help patients on site?
The animals were introduced to Aberbeeg Hospital to offer our patient’s emotional and social support.
Patients are offered paid work roles to help look after the animals. This enables them to develop animal care skills and to benefit from the positive effects that being around animals has on their emotional and physical wellbeing. Providing care for the animals gives them a sense of responsibility and encourages them to become increasingly independent and confident in their own abilities. These things support their progress in treatment and their longer-term mental health recovery.
Patients that have been involved in the programme are very proud to make an essential and valued contribution to the welfare of the animals.
What are some of the biggest benefits to patients that you have seen from having the animals on site?
The benefits of having animals on site, here in Aberbeeg, have been amazing to see. I have taken a patient to visit the animals and then they have reflected about their day and opened up at times about their own personal feelings, which has given myself and the other team members the chance to get to know them and understand them better.
The service users benefit from the physical and emotional support, friendship and sensory experiences that the animals provide. Each department enjoys spending time with the animals and as a common interest they have helped us to develop good team relationships.
The animals give our patients and staff a significant mood-boost, help to build confidence, and offer a different type of companionship, especially going through the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020-2021.
How do the animals help you as a staff member?
The animals have helped us come together more, and each department enjoys the animals. For me though it’s seeing the patients go from being very anxious around the donkeys to loving them as friends and a member of our Aberbeeg family. As a member of staff, the animals have supported me emotionally and become lifelong family members.
We also asked one of our service users currently at Aberbeeg Hospital about how they interact with the animals day to day and how the experience has supported them.
The unique experience of working with a rescue donkey and her two foals, one female and the other male, is a marvellous way of deinstitutionalising in a productive way.
I clean the donkeys by grooming them, cleaning out their stable on a daily basis, and making sure that they are well looked after. It is a physical job to do, but very rewarding.
The donkeys have a paddock, soon to be two paddocks, and plenty of care and attention. The food is managed and well provided, and the hospital is really committed to looking after these lovely animals. They now have a safe and secure future. They are very kind animals and appreciate good care and loving kindness.
We also have four pygmy goats, who are hilarious, and also appreciate good care and affection. It is easier to maintain their pen, but they have to be carefully looked after so that they don’t put on too much weight. Once they become familiar to you, they become less shy and skittish, and are very funny and a bit wacky in their behaviour. They have a tendency to bully each other, but that’s wildlife in action.
It has been a wonderful experience working with the animals at Aberbeeg, and I will always remember all of their unique personalities.
To learn more about our services and site at Aberbeeg Hospital, please visit our website here.