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University of Basel

Therapy straight from the chicken coop and the pigpen.

Text: Yvonne Vahlensieck

At a Basel-based clinic for rehabilitation, sheep, chickens and other animals help patients return to normal life. The clinic also conducts practical research on animal-assisted therapy. Our visit to the animal experts of this cutting-edge field.

Patient with chicken
Ergotherapy with animals helps to develop neurological planning of movement, for example holding something in your hand. (Photo: Andreas Zimmermann)

Frederik is not in the mood to work today. It is raining and instead of coming out to greet his guests, he has decided he would rather barricade himself under a mountain of straw. “He really doesn’t care for inclement weather,” chuckles psychologist Karin Hediger. She does not mind that Frederik is out of sorts today. The miniature pig is only expected to work when he wants to, just like any other resident of the animal-assisted therapy facility at REHAB Basel, a clinic specializing in neurorehabilitation and paraplegiology.

The small unit, which was founded in 2013, is located directly across from the entrance to the clinic and offers patients with brain and spinal cord injuries the opportunity to complete their course of therapy together with animal helpers. Hediger helped to build this program and now heads up a research group at the University of Basel which conducts studies investigating the efficacy of animal-assisted therapies.

Attention-grabbing tricks

As we make our way through the stables, Hediger greets each minipig, dwarf goat and guinea pig by name. She clearly knows them all personally, and they all know her, too. She opens a gate, and a flock of curious hens scurry out toward her. “They’re new,” she says, “and they’re still being trained by the keepers.” The animals not only learn how to interact with humans; they are also taught how to recognize different colors, among other things. These tricks are then integrated into the therapy sessions in the form of games. Hediger opens a cabinet containing all manner of toys, such as colorful rings and foam cubes. “A lot of people are surprised to learn that our sheep know how to play dice,” she quips.

Animal-assisted therapy has vastly increased in popularity over the past few years. This therapeutic approach is not only employed in neurorehabilitation; it also has applications in treating psychiatric problems, such as depression, anxiety disorders, autism and post-traumatic stress disorder. Hediger hopes her research will help her to find out more about why these therapies are effective, thus allowing her to improve on existing techniques. Her scientific findings directly inform her practice at the facility.

A session has begun in one of the therapy rooms at the stables. The patient and her occupational therapist are seated in front of a large crate filled with straw, hay and three lively guinea pigs leaping about. Every now and again, they stretch their necks out toward the patient, who is busy preparing apples and lettuce for their delectation. When one of the guinea pigs manages to nab a snack, it quickly dashes to its den to enjoy the treat in peace. The young woman, who keeps guinea pigs of her own at home, clearly seems to be enjoying their antics.

Feeding for fine motor control

She uses only her right hand to cut the food and feed the animals; due to a brain injury, she has little range of motion with her left. The therapist recommends she try feeding the guinea pigs with her left hand for a change. With visible effort, the patient grasps a slice of apple in her left hand and offers it to a guinea pig, who happily scampers off with the fruit.

Hediger reports that this type of therapy is in high demand, explaining: “When patients prepare food for an animal, that type of activity is more meaningful to them than simply squeezing a ball when it comes to practicing their manual dexterity.” The more meaningful the task at hand, the more effective the therapy. Hediger was able to conclusively prove this connection in her own studies: Patients with brain injuries were more motivated, communicative and satisfied when engaging in animal-assisted therapy than they were with conventional approaches.

Hediger continues our tour outside. In the outdoor pens, rabbits and guinea pigs snuggle into the hay. Minipig Frederik and his brother Piggeldy enjoy a walk in an open-air paddock. The promise of imminent dinner has coaxed him out after all. Through a low window, we can see the sheep in a neighboring building (where they are not currently engaged in a game of dice). Hediger explains that the entire facility is wheelchair accessible.

Even the guinea pig pen has been raised to allow patients in wheelchairs to make eye contact with the animals. “But the animals always have the option to withdraw and rest – that’s very important,” she underscores. The welfare of the animals is a key concern to Hediger; that is why she is one of the first researchers in this field to conduct animal welfare studies. For example, she has measured the stress levels of guinea pigs in different types of therapy scenarios. One sign of increased stress is a rise in the animal’s body temperature as measured using an infrared thermometer. Based on the conclusive results of the study, it was clear that the guinea pigs should be placed in familiar groups during the therapy sessions and that they must always be provided with a den to allow them to retreat if needed.

Everyone finds their own way to connect

There is a flurry of commotion nearby. A large aviary hosts a chaotic flock of parakeets, parrots and other exotic birds. In a far corner of the paddock, a keeper tends to a horse. Why does the facility house such a diverse array of animals? According to Hediger: “We want to have a wide range of animals for patients to interact with, animals with different personalities that allow for different sensory experiences.” That means just about anyone can find the right activity for them: Some types of therapy are better suited to rabbits while others work best with goats. Some people love to groom horses while other patients are content to listen to the birds chirp. And for those who grew up on farms, pigs and sheep can bring back old memories.

“On a certain psychological level, we are programmed to seek the company of animals,” says Hediger. It is well known that petting a dog results in the release of a type of “happiness hormone.” Hediger is currently investigating whether patients in a persistent vegetative state may also benefit from contact with dogs and from petting them with the help of an assistant. Her initial findings show that these activities do have a positive impact on patients’ consciousness as well as on metrics such as heart frequency, eye movement and facial expressions.

Both the animal and human therapists are finally finished for the day. A keeper clears away the signs cordoning off the areas used for the therapy sessions. Now the facility is open to anyone keen to catch a stroll amongst the animals – and a little dose of happiness besides.

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