At Priory Group, our teams are continually developing new ways to engage the people that we care for. As such, a number of our hospitals and centres across the UK have introduced resident pets as well as animals for therapy to provide the people we support with meaningful experiences that contribute to their wellbeing.

Equine assisted therapy at Priory

Equine assisted therapy is used at a number of Priory hospitals and centres. Horses are used in therapeutic interventions as they are naturally calm creatures that are able to mirror and respond to human behaviour. They are highly effective at interacting and working with others in a patient and non-judgemental manner.

At Priory hospitals, equine assisted therapy is particularly useful for people who struggle to articulate their feelings, as they have the opportunity to express their emotions with their horse. In addition, individuals who find it hard to trust or be close to others, often develop a strong bond with their horse, and experience affection, acceptance and mutual respect. It helps people to discover more about their capabilities, develop new ways of thinking and change negative behaviours.

Fiona* undertook equine assisted therapy as part of her treatment programme, where she was working through her addiction issues. During a session, Fiona was tasked with envisaging her recovery and walking through possible ‘hurdles’ with her horse. Upon reaching a particular obstacle, Fiona began talking to her horse about her feelings of grief and loss, which she had not yet been able to do. Her horse responded in a gentle manner, and stood beside her in a protective yet nurturing manner. As a result, Fiona was able to start talking about her grief and loss during group therapy, and how they contributed to her addictive behaviours.

Resident cats and chickens at Priory Lichfield Road

Priory Lichfield Road is a rehabilitation and recovery service that has been specifically designed to support people with severe, complex and enduring mental health needs.

At Priory Lichfield Road, there are two resident cats as well as chickens. Patients can also keep their own pets within their bungalows. Claire Garfield, Clinical Lead at Lichfield Road said that the animals "really help service users develop that sense of community.” They are also helpful in terms of self-soothing when a person is feeling distressed, as “taking care and looking after these animals can really support [our residents] to manage these feelings". They also help people to “develop a sense of responsibility and also having a role which is really important in their recovery journey."

Rabbits at Priory Woodland View

Priory Woodland View is a rehabilitation and recovery service where people work to develop positive self-management and independence skills ready for transitioning into the community. The team at Priory Woodland View have introduced resident rabbits to help people within the service to achieve these goals.

Roxanne Buckley, Occupational Therapy Assistant at Woodland View, said: “At Woodland View we have real work opportunities, giving patients responsibilities to help them transition from life on the wards back into society.

“Our resident bunnies – Olivia and Ralph – need looking after. When patients come in […] having a routine, and looking after a being can really help to give them back a sense of worth.

“Petting animals has also been proven to release a hormone called oxytocin, which makes you feel happier and has a calming effect.

“As well as pet therapy, we also take patients out of the wards as much as possible for gardening and horticulture, growing our own fruit and vegetables. We’ve visited a local farm to see alpacas where patients have enjoyed feeding and grooming them.”

Dog assisted therapy at Priory Hospital Bristol

Lara, a rescue dog from Battersea Dogs Home, is introduced into a number of therapy sessions by her owner Daniel Fryer, a senior qualified psychotherapist working at Priory Hospital Bristol. Lara is registered with the national organisation Pets as Therapy as a therapy animal, and Daniel has a diploma in Animal Assisted Therapy alongside his other qualifications.

Where appropriate, Lara is used to provide comfort in moments of distress and to help people as they work to rebuild their self-esteem. Daniel believes the reason that Lara has been so effective is because people "don't feel judged by a dog, who is able to display unconditional acceptance. [Therefore], they feel more confident to confront their issues".

With dog assisted therapy, the presence of the non-judgemental pet can encourage a person to interact with both their emotions and with others in the room. As they pay attention to the animal, they become less focused on their own difficulties, helping them to begin talking about themselves and considering new ways forward.

As animals can trigger the release of endorphins, dog assisted therapy can also help a person to remain calm in sessions. The release of the neurotransmitter, which has a calming effect, can also help the person when they experience any moments in distress.

*Name has been changed to protect patient identity