A care home in Birmingham is using pigs, chickens, goats and other animals to improve the lives of its residents. Neville Williams House is taking part in a three-year research project looking at how interaction with animals can benefit people with dementia.
NHS guidelines include animal-assisted therapy as one form of intervention which should be available to people with dementia suffering from depression or anxiety.
"It was a leap of faith," says Marcus Fellows, the chief executive of the home. "There were fears about health and safety, illness, disease. People were saying, if you have pigs then they're going to bite people."
But after talking to staff at a local nature centre and consulting carers and residents, Mr Fellows decided to go ahead with keeping a range of outdoor animals on the premises.
At the moment the home has two goats, one pig, two rabbits, a guinea pig, ducks, chickens and an aviary of birds. The animals all live in the garden where residents are free to visit them whenever they like.
The smaller animals and even the goats are also taken indoors so residents can interact with them whatever the weather.
It costs £1,000 a year to feed the animals, which were all either donated or purchased with money given to the home specifically for this purpose. So far there have not been any vets' bills and insurance is covered by the home's existing policy.
Professor Alison Bowes from the University of Stirling is leading a research project which will be focusing on the work done at Neville Williams House.
"It's aiming to identify best practice. We're looking at the quality of life of people with dementia and their family members," she says.
The project will also be analysing previous research on the effects of animal interventions.
Jane Fossey, a clinical psychologist and deputy chairman of The Society of Companion Animal Studies, says there is a lot of small-scale and anecdotal evidence that animals can improve the quality of life of people with dementia.
One study found that having a fish tank present increases the nutritional intake of people with dementia and another found that companion animals reduce verbal aggression and anxiety in people with Alzheimer's disease.
Back at Neville Williams House the residents are delighted with their new companions. Flo Condon, 85, is a day visitor there.
She says everyone loves the animals and fights over who will get to care for them. "You always have something in your pocket for them when nobody's looking," she says.
Christine Adams, whose mother is a full-time resident at the home, says she has noticed a difference since the animals have been around.
"It's helped her with her speech and you can see that she becomes much more animated when she's near the animals."
Mrs Adams says having the animals around is also useful when her children and grandchildren visit.
"When we go out into the garden it gives us a lot to talk about because in the home you get a bit limited about what you can talk about. It's like having a family outing but still on the premises."
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