• Fri. Jun 14th, 2024

Using animals as mental health respite proves controversial

ByElina Turner

Nov 22, 2017

A herd of alpacas made an appearance at King’s Buildings on November 15, as part of Mental Health and Wellbeing Week at the University of Edinburgh.

The event was organised by the Edinburgh University Student’s Association, as part of an effort to demonstrate the positive impact of animals on mental health and wellbeing, while also providing students with an opportunity to simply relax with the alpacas.

The event was filled with excitement as people interacted with the unique animals.

A diverse audience was present, with guests ranging in age from six to 60 plus, although there was a noticeably high concentration of students present.

Those who attended the event held a clear opinion on therapy-focused animal interactions, supporting the event and its aims wholeheartedly.

In the eyes of many attendees, animals have always offered comfort and companionship to those around them.

With this in mind, BobCat Alpacas is likely to make another appearance at the University of Edinburgh around exam period.

Owner of BobCat Alpacas, Bob Crosbie, came into alpaca care and breeding after retiring from the civil service.

He has worked with the university on several occasions to de-stress students through contact with alpacas, including during Welcome Week when the alpacas visited Pollock Halls.

Crosbie’s alpacas have also participated in events to help relax young children, especially those on the autistic spectrum.

Speaking to The Student, Crosbie explained that alpacas are a particularly calming animal because they are “relaxed” themselves, and “enjoy interaction”.

The tactile, warm and easy nature of the animals lends them a soothing presence.

Animals are often ‘employed’ to help cancer patients, people with mental illnesses or disabilities, the elderly and even prisoners. These animals range from dogs to cats, pigs, ducks, dolphins and, of course, alpacas.

The idea of using animals for therapy has become popular in recent years, but has not gone unopposed. Supporters of animal therapy claim that it has both physical and mental benefits, such as lowering blood pressure, providing comfort and reducing anxiety.

However, Dr John Bradshaw, a visiting fellow of anthrozoology at the University of Bristol, does not agree, arguing that there is little science backing for pet and animal therapy.

Bradshaw explained how the observed improvements associated with animal therapy and emotional support animals can be repeated through various other activities, and that their influence may only have a short-term impact.

The relationship between animals and autistic children, as mentioned by Crosbie, has received much scrutiny.

Marguerite O’Haire, a PhD candidate at The University of Queensland, revealed that when interacting with guinea pigs rather than toys, children with ASD (autism spectrum disorders) were more likely to “talk and look at their peers”.

The Huffington Post reported that a 55 per cent increase in social behaviour was observed overall.

Still, this study did not look into possible long-term impacts, and mostly featured high-functioning participants at the higher end of the spectrum.

Guests said they were looking forward to similar events in the future.


Image: Andrew Perry / Photographer

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