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Animal therapy service set up by nurse helps people with severe mental health problems

People with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are being treated with dogs, rabbits and rats as part of an animal therapy programme at a Manchester hospital.

People with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are being treated with dogs, rabbits and rats as part of an animal therapy programme at a Manchester hospital.


Mental health nurse Sharon Hall with her dog Moose. Picture: PA Wire

The seven-week course of animal-assisted therapy at North Manchester General Hospital sees them visiting men with long-term and severe mental health conditions, where patients begin to bond with the animals, reconnect with living things and open up about their problems.

It is run by trained mental health nurse Sharon Hall, who found buying a puppy helped her cope with the loss of her own parents.

Now the dog, Moose, a two-year-old King Charles Cavalier Spaniel, is used in her work in the hospital along with Maggie the Jack Russell, rats, rabbits, guinea pigs and a mouse.

'Magical response'

Ms Hall said: 'The feedback we've had has been magical.

'The occupational therapists have told us that some of the men we have on the course never attend any group activities – yet they have come to and really enjoyed these sessions.

'A lot of the session is non-verbal – and people can just sit and spend time with the animals enjoying a quiet bond.

'The two dogs are popular – but we find that the rats in particular provoke questions and a lot of curiosity.

'This is the beauty of the work. The connection you get with an animal depends on you. And then that connection builds a bridge to helping start conversations with people. It's a common bond that breaks down barriers.'

Several studies have shown the beneficial effects of animal therapy, including providing stress relief, improving patient mood and boosting well-being.

RCN encouragement

The RCN has previously encouraged more organisations to explore animal therapy, and is due to publish a protocol to support safety and best practice later this year.

The Manchester scheme is one of 35 projects funded by £330,000 in grants from Manchester Health and Care Commissioning, a partnership between Manchester Clinical Commissioning Group and Manchester City Council, to target people who may find it difficult to get help or needed support for mental well-being.

A second project focuses on female patients at the hospital coping with depression, bereavement and psychosis.

Ms Hall set up Noah's ART (Animal Rescue Therapy) service to provide such services to patients with mental health issues.

She added: 'A lot of the time the animals can be a real comfort – and the simple physical connection of holding or cuddling an animal can bring profound relaxation even at a time of major mental or emotional anguish.

'When people can enjoy animals it can be that small ray of light that gives hope for enjoying other things in life too.'

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