animalmagicThe demand for animal-assisted therapy and is increasing – but Dr Daniel Allen warns caution is needed when choosing a provider:

Since starting a quest to find my perfect pet in 2011, I have experienced and observed many exotic animal encounter companies. Most claim to offer ‘pet therapy’ as a service but mental health professionals should be wary.

Julia Dando, head of operations and development at Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS), takes a similar stance. “There is much confusion around what is ‘therapy’ and what has ‘therapeutic value’ and none more so than in the broad field of animal-assisted interventions (AAI),” she says. “I don’t think this misunderstanding is a trend. I think it is a long-standing problem in many health fields that can cause much confusion for anyone looking to benefit from them or anyone looking to get involved in them.”

I like the experiences animal encounter companies can facilitate – ‘can’ and ‘facilitate’ being key. I like the educational message ‘some’ companies share with the public. What I dislike is the lack of regulation, the rise of start-up companies with neither the knowledge nor experience with such specialist animals or of the potential dangers attached to bringing exotic animals within touching distance of the general public and into mental health environments.

The animals themselves are protected by the Five Freedoms of the Animal Welfare Act (2006). These are freedom from: hunger and thirst; discomfort; pain, injury or disease; fear and distress and freedom to express normal behaviour. If such conditions are not met, the RSPCA and other organisations can be contacted.

But when it comes to the safety and wellbeing of the public, there is no guaranteed protection. For some reason questions do not seem to be asked. Who are the people that facilitate these experiences? Are they safe to be around vulnerable people? How are they ‘pet therapists’? With the profession completely unregulated, this is difficult to determine and a real concern.

Animals as a 'tool'
In terms of expertise, I often ask this question: if I bought hamsters and decided to go to schools to help children with learning and behavioural difficulties, would I be a hamster- assisted therapist? This generally results in laughter and a resounding no, as was the case with Dando: “No… You would be a hamster owner visiting a school with your hamster. There really is no such thing as an ‘animal-assisted therapist’ as such. In an authentic therapeutic setting animal-assisted interventions are used by qualified health or social care professionals as what might be one of their tools in a tool kit. I use the term ‘tool’ reluctantly when referring to living creatures but the interventions used by a qualified practitioner might be from a range of models and disciplines – from art to music, animals or sand.”

This is important. To become a ‘therapist’ requires qualifications. Dando adds: “One would qualify in the appropriate health profession – i.e. a counsellor, occupational therapist or educationalist – and then might choose to use AAI as part of a therapeutic model within [your] practice.”

For public safety, my advice is to request Five Forms. If an animal encounter company cannot provide these, find one that will. They are: ■ A year trade experience or animal specific qualifications ■ Public liability insurance ■ Enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service check – required for those ‘caring, training and supervising children or vulnerable adults’ ■ Risk assessment of animals in public settings ■ Performing Animals License – a fee paid to the local council which registers animals used by animal encounter companies. Some councils insist on them, others are more relaxed. Responsible companies should insist on having this.

I strongly urge anyone to adopt the same Five Form policy. Without it, the person bringing the zoo to you ‘could be’ inexperienced, uninsured, with a criminal record, have no awareness of safety requirements or what to do in an emergency, using animals unregistered by the local council. The encounter ‘could be’ a potential danger to the safety of children and adults.

In the right hands with the right rules alongside qualified professionals those in mental health environments can benefit from encountering exotic animals. But I agree with Dando: “To have an animal and see that as qualifying oneself as a therapist would be a little like saying ‘I have a spanner so now I can fix your car”’.

To help reduce the risks, remember: Think Five Freedoms – Request Five Forms. Also visit SCAS’ website to find out about the AAI Code of Practice (UK): code-of-practice/