Ther­apy chick­ens

Susie Kear­ley in­ves­ti­gates how chick­ens can help in the ther­a­peu­tic process

Your Chickens - - Contents -

The ther­a­peu­tic value of tak­ing dogs to visit pa­tients, spe­cial needs cen­tres, schools and nurs­ing homes is well known. Even docile cats are some­times used as ther­apy an­i­mals, pro­vid­ing com­pan­ion­ship, con­fi­dence and a feel­ing of well­be­ing to peo­ple in need. But ther­apy chick­ens?

The idea of chick­ens be­ing used in ther­a­peu­tic set­tings has gained mo­men­tum in re­cent years. They boost peo­ple’s mood, com­bat lone­li­ness and iso­la­tion among the el­derly, and car­ing for chick­ens can im­prove mo­bil­ity too. Pris­oner re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion is per­haps one of the more sur­pris­ing as­pects of chicken ther­apy, where con­victs learn an­i­mal care skills while en­joy­ing the calm­ing ef­fect that the birds can bring. Ther­apy chick­ens can have a re­mark­able ef­fect, lift­ing peo­ple’s spirits and staving off de­pres­sion in a wide range of sit­u­a­tions.


Ione Maria Ro­jas founded the Furry Tales project at Step­ney City Farm in Lon­don in 2013. With the help of vol­un­teers, she took Pekin Ban­tam chick­ens, rab­bits and guinea pigs to care homes and day cen­tres across the cap­i­tal.

“Liv­ing in Lon­don is in­tense,” she says. “So I started vol­un­teer­ing at Step­ney City Farm and found the ex­pe­ri­ence ben­e­fi­cial for my well­be­ing. I’d had a long-term in­ter­est in art ther­a­pies and el­derly health and I’d vol­un­teered in a cou­ple of care homes run­ning paint­ing work­shops. My pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence with the farm an­i­mals made me think that the el­derly peo­ple would ben­e­fit from meet­ing the an­i­mals too. I took a few small an­i­mals into a care home and it snow­balled from there.”

The re­ac­tion from el­derly peo­ple to see­ing chick­ens ar­rive in their com­mu­nal lounge was de­light­ful. They were smil­ing broadly and keen to par­tic­i­pate.

“Pekin ban­tams are known for be­ing re­ally docile,” says Ione. “They like to be stroked and en­joy perch­ing on peo­ple’s laps, mak­ing them the per­fect ther­apy an­i­mal. The ex­pe­ri­ence pro­motes in­ter­ac­tion and can make those who are very re­served and with­drawn want to join in and hold a chicken. For some peo­ple who kept chick­ens in their youth, it brings back happy mem­o­ries.”

The chick­ens are very con­tent sit­ting on peo­ple’s laps. It’s a talk­ing point be­cause peo­ple think they’ll run away. But the hens are born and raised on the farm. “They get a lot of han­dling, so they’re used to it,” says Ione.

In 2015, Ione vis­ited an­i­mal ther­apy cen­tres across Amer­ica to learn best prac­tice and share ex­pe­ri­ences. At the Life Care Cen­ter of Nashoba Val­ley in Lit­tle­ton, Mas­sachusetts, she learnt about their hugely suc­cess­ful an­i­mal ther­apy pro­gramme. The res­i­dents with Alzheimer’s dis­ease ben­e­fit hugely from watch­ing the chick­ens and say the ex­pe­ri­ence is calm­ing. One res­i­dent started feed­ing the chick­ens to im­prove his mo­bil­ity.

In Kansas, a day care worker showed the clients how to care for chick­ens and en­cour­aged those with DIY skills to build a coop. They thor­oughly en­joyed build­ing the hen house and got a huge sense of sat­is­fac­tion from com­plet­ing the job.

When Ione re­turned from her trip, she was struck by the range of phys­i­cal, emo­tional, cog­ni­tive and so­cial ben­e­fits she had ob­served, in­clud­ing faster heal­ing times in pa­tients and greater com­mu­nity co­he­sion when an­i­mals were in­volved in treat­ment regimes. It opened her eyes to new ideas, some of which were in­te­grated into her work in the UK.

Then, in March 2017, Ione handed over the re­spon­si­bil­ity for Furry Tales to her co­work­ers, Jane and Mer­lin.

Jane says: “We’ve now de­vel­oped a se­ries of out­reach pack­ages where we take chick­ens and other an­i­mals to a hos­pi­tal de­men­tia ward, res­i­den­tial homes and to shel­tered hous­ing, vis­it­ing each lo­ca­tion for eight weeks. Some of our clients are iso­lated or so­cially ex­cluded, so we help to com­bat that, gen­er­ate con­ver­sa­tions and pro­mote pos­i­tive re­la­tion­ships. Those who en­joyed it can con­tinue the ex­pe­ri­ence by com­ing along to our weekly Fri­day af­ter­noon drop-in ses­sions at the farm.

“Some of our ben­e­fi­cia­ries are liv­ing in­de­pen­dently, but they strug­gle to get out. Some are in wheel­chairs or have mo­bil­ity prob­lems. We can help with a range of is­sues, in­clud­ing anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion. Although most ben­e­fi­cia­ries are older, we do ac­cept peo­ple as young as 25 if we can iden­tify a need and see that they’ll ben­e­fit from the ex­pe­ri­ence. They get a mini-tour of the farm and one-to-one con­tact with the chick­ens.”

We are not im­mune from the oc­ca­sional mishap. Dur­ing a visit to one care home, a chicken es­caped into the court­yard and we ended up with three vol­un­teers run­ning around af­ter it

Although the work can be ther­a­peu­tic, Jane is keen to stress that they don’t ac­tu­ally un­der­take ‘ther­apy’. “We of­fer an­i­mal as­sisted in­ter­ven­tions and ac­tiv­i­ties,” she says.


Else­where, a char­ity called Hen­power, set up in 2011 in Gateshead, en­cour­ages hen-keep­ing as a way to com­bat lone­li­ness and de­pres­sion among older peo­ple. A study by Northum­bria Univer­sity pub­lished in 2014 found that Hen­power im­proved the health and well­be­ing of older peo­ple and re­duced lone­li­ness and de­pres­sion.

Hen­power en­cour­ages par­tic­i­pants to take full re­spon­si­bil­ity for the care of their chick­ens, which means they are not just pet­ting them — they’re build­ing coops, clean­ing out the birds and feed­ing them while learn­ing about all the dif­fer­ent as­pects of chicken care.

Vol­un­teers for Hen­power don’t just visit care en­vi­ron­ments. They also take ther­apy chick­ens to schools and events where peo­ple can en­joy in­ter­ac­tion with the birds and learn about their care needs.

To­day ther­apy chick­ens are used around the world to help

those with health and mo­bil­ity is­sues to en­joy life and have fun. Even peo­ple who are liv­ing in­de­pen­dently can ben­e­fit from chicken ther­apy. It helps peo­ple to get out­side and so­cialise. Res­i­dents in homes are more in­clined to go out­doors if they can in­ter­act with an­i­mals when they get there — peo­ple are mo­ti­vated to push them­selves to achieve greater mo­bil­ity and in­de­pen­dence. The chick­ens make peo­ple laugh and bring sim­ple plea­sures to those who face huge health chal­lenges, dis­abil­i­ties, or are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing se­ri­ous emo­tional prob­lems.


Paul Checkley is a keen ad­vo­cate of the ther­a­peu­tic value of chick­ens. He suf­fered abuse as a child and, as an adult, he couldn’t shake off the feel­ings of shame and de­pres­sion. He had a full psy­chotic break­down, re­tired from his job on med­i­cal grounds and then a friend sug­gested he adopt bat­tery hens. “They’ve had a hor­ri­ble life, just like you,” his friend per­sisted.

Paul looked into it and then de­cided to adopt four hens from the Bri­tish Hen Wel­fare Trust — they were feath­er­less and ter­ri­fied from their or­deal. But as he watched them grow into beau­ti­ful con­fi­dent chick­ens, he found it im­mensely re­ward­ing and the ex­pe­ri­ence gave him the strength to fight his own de­mons. “The hens ac­cept me. They calm me down and I feel that through the hor­rors in both their lives and mine we con­nect,” he told The Guardian.


A good ther­apy chicken needs to en­joy be­ing han­dled, so the process of so­cial­i­sa­tion early in life is im­por­tant. They shouldn’t star­tle eas­ily and they should have an easy-go­ing tem­per­a­ment.

Ione ex­plains how staff and vol­un­teers from the Furry Tales project ap­proach the res­i­dents in care homes: “Un­less peo­ple are re­ally keen to hold the chick­ens right away, we han­dle them first and ap­proach the res­i­dents slowly, en­abling them to get a good look at the birds and feel at ease around them. We’ll hold a chicken in front of them and if the res­i­dent has a de­sire to have the chicken on their knee, we’ll put the chicken on their lap.

“There’s al­ways a vol­un­teer present, so the ben­e­fi­cia­ries can stroke the an­i­mal and be as close or as far away as they want, for as long as they want. They have a plas­tic mole-skin cover on their lap to catch any lit­tle ac­ci­dents.

“The chick­ens’ train­ing is called ‘an­i­mal so­cial­is­ing’. It in­volves get­ting them used to be­ing with peo­ple and be­ing han­dled. When they’re very young, vol­un­teers sit in their en­clo­sure with them, so they get used to be­ing around peo­ple.

“We’re not im­mune from the oc­ca­sional mishap. Dur­ing a visit to one care home, a chicken es­caped into the court­yard and we ended up with three vol­un­teers run­ning around af­ter this chicken,” says Ione. “For a while it looked like we might lose her. The res­i­dents thought it was hi­lar­i­ous and it all ended well.”


In the UK, ther­apy chick­ens are not cer­ti­fied be­cause there is no of­fi­cial ac­cred­i­ta­tion process for ther­apy chick­ens or An­i­mal As­sisted In­ter­ven­tions. There are, how­ever, best prac­tice guide­lines to which many or­gan­i­sa­tions in the UK and around the world ad­here:

G So­ci­ety for Com­pan­ion­ship An­i­mal Stud­ies (SCAS) Code of Prac­tice; G In­ter­na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Hu­man-An­i­mal In­ter­ac­tion Or­gan­i­sa­tions’ 2014 White Pa­per on AAI.

An in­ter­ac­tive on­line course, lead­ing to a Ther­apy Chicken Han­dler Cer­tifi­cate, teaches the skills needed for chicken ther­apy, in­clud­ing han­dling, pub­lic speak­ing, trans­porta­tion and bird safety. The course ex­plores how to read your bird’s stress sig­nals and an­tic­i­pate their re­sponses and be­hav­iour. MORE: www.chick­en­­a­py_chicken. html

ABOVE: Furry Tales - Ione takes chick­ens to shel­tered hous­ing res­i­dents.

Ione at the farm with a baby chicken

Ma­bel gets a lift with Ione

A cock­erel at Ed­in­burgh Prison

TOP: A care home res­i­dent meets a chicken ABOVE: Mer­lin and Jane with chick­ens

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