Over the past 20 years, there has been a steady rise in the number of programmes aimed at improving human health and welfare with the inclusion of animals.
They vary according to:
- Client population (eg older people, people with physical or learning disabilities)
- Species of animals (eg companion animals or farm animals)
- Active or passive interaction with animals (eg observation of fish tank or grooming activities, dog walking programmes)
- Settings – institutions or community (eg young offender institutes, nursing homes or animal activities on a care farm or at an animal adoption centre)
- Anticipated aims or goals of the programme (eg specific outcomes in occupational therapy or enhanced general well-being)
- Level of training and expertise of the person(s) delivering the programme (eg qualified therapist, animal welfare professional etc)
Common types of AAI programmes in the UK
Animal visiting activity programmes
Animal activity-based programmes involve animals (usually dogs) and their owners visiting people with additional needs, such as older people in nursing homes and people in hospices, who may benefit from seeing or interacting with a companion animal.
Such programmes can also include educational visits to schools which promote the message of responsible pet ownership and is offered by a number of charities, including The Blue Cross. Sometimes dogs are involved in the specific development of skills in dog-assisted reading programmes such as R.E.A.D and the Read2Dogs programme.
These visits are usually undertaken by volunteers of charities such as Pets as Therapy and Therapet. The participating animals are temperament-tested and health-checked.
More recently, a number of care farms and people working in farm-settings (eg Barton Hill ) have established visiting programmes encouraging individuals and groups to visit their farms, to advance skills and enhance self-development. In some programmes, groups can stay for several days and participate in a variety of farm activities, for example Jamie’s Farm.
Equine-based programmes whereby horses are included as part of an overall education strategy, sometimes known as equine-facilitated learning (EFL) (eg The Fortune Centre), or form an essential part of the delivery of a specific therapy such as hippotherapy (see Riding for the Disabled), or psychotherapy known as equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) (see Eagala). Some equine programmes are specifically tailored to supporting children with special needs and older people, offering a range of different activities to build up skills and emotional well-being. One example is the Elisabeth Svendsen Trust.
In addition to equine-assisted psychotherapy, smaller companion animals such as dogs, cats, guinea pigs, rabbits, gerbils etc are also included in therapeutic programmes delivered by trained professionals. For example, counsellors, physiotherapists, speech and language therapists and occupational therapists may use their own companion animals or those of a volunteer in their sessions with selected clients to reach specific, agreed goals. These sessions can be delivered on a 1:1 basis, or involve several people, for example a health professional, a volunteer and the companion animal.
These programmes involve interactions between animals and people who reside permanently in a particular setting. Examples include programmes with resident cats in care homes, fish tanks and outdoor bird feeders for people living in institutional settings, residential schools where students participate in therapeutic activities with resident animals – farm and domestic. As with all animal-based programmes, it is essential that animals are carefully selected and monitored closely to ensure good animal welfare.