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Therapy Snakes to Treat Depression


Snakes are being recruited as animal “therapists” by the NHS to treat depression.  A London clinic is the first to use reptiles to help patients overcome low self-worth and “communication issues”.

The Huntercombe hospital in Roehampton has enlisted Angel, a seven-year-old 5ft corn snake, in group sessions where patients can touch, feed and care for her.  The majority of its 38 patients are referred by the NHS for treatment for addictions and eating disorders.

Doctors say those involved in animal-assisted therapy (AAT) have already shown an improvement in concentration and mood. Louise Helsdown, the occupational therapist running the programme, said snakes were a “fantastic aid” in helping people recover from mental health problems.  She said: “We have patients who can’t get out of bed because they’re so depressed. But snakes are a great motivator especially for male patients who often don’t want to look after furry animals.

“Snakes are also unusual and people don’t come across them very often in this country. Handling them gives patients a sense of achievement which they can tell their friends and family about.  “They offer unconditional acceptance. They don’t judge people who have self-harm scars, for example.

“These animals provide a lifeline – the enjoyment of spending time with these animals really lifts their spirits and gives them a real sense of purpose to their day. “As part of the therapy, they are an innovative and fantastic aid to the recovery process.”

Known for their placid characters, corn snakes are not venomous and are the most popular type of pet snake. They are ideal in therapeutic settings because they enjoy being touched and learn to recognise their handler.

And the snakes, which originate from the middle and southern states of the US, are easy to care for as they are extremely hardy.

Huntercombe also uses a dog and two hamsters to help relax patients. Scientific studies have demonstrated that animal-assisted therapy can benefit people suffering a range of conditions.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania reported that stroking a cat or dog can lower blood pressure in those with hypertension. It has also been shown that people who watch fish in an aquarium before a medical procedure had less anxiety.  In the US, animals are used in convalescent homes, hospitals, daycare centres, and prisons.  Other clinics, including the Priory in north London, have pioneered “equine assisted psychotherapy” using horses to treat patients with anxiety and addiction.

All animals used at Huntercombe have regular health checks and breaks to ensure they do not get distressed.

Source:  The London Evening Standard, June 12, 2009

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