Chickens have lived among people for thousands of years, except for the second half of the 20th century. In the process of consigning chickens to farms and warehouses, we shelved their benefits as service animals, from their usefulness in yards and gardens to their certain intelligence and nature for emotional and social connection with humans. Today, we’re rediscovering the conventional chicken’s effect on the human condition and its intrinsic value beyond a good meal.
“Animals have a lengthy history of assisting humans in rehabilitation and treatment,” explains Tanya Bailey, a licensed social worker, researcher, and Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota. “One of the earliest accounts dates to the 9th century where people with disabilities living in Gheel, Belgium, worked with and learned about the daily living needs of farm animals, including chickens.”
How Chickens Help Heal
Depression, anxiety, PTSD, autism, hypertension, dementia, end-of-life care, and even general stress can be eased by the presence of animals, including chickens.
“I find all people respond to the work I do with my registered therapy chicken, often because they are so surprised to see a chicken that is so calm and enjoys interacting with human beings,” Bailey says. “I have worked with my registered therapy chicken, Woodstock (pictured above), with young children, families and adults; the elderly; people in hospitals for various concerns; and a recent special request from a woman in hospice.”
While Bailey prefers to work with Silkies, any chicken breed considered for therapy must meet proper socialization, training and temperament requirements. These are essential for the success in a therapy animal program.
“I don’t think there’s one ideal chicken breed for work in human wellbeing programs, as each chicken really is a unique individual and comes with its own special talents and skills,” Bailey says. “The PACE model of animal-assisted interactions is a more accurate determinant of success,” a nuanced dynamic between practitioner, animal, client and environment.
What Makes A Good Therapy Chicken?
On its website, Pet Partners advises that an ideal therapy bird of any species is calm, not easily startled, and enjoys interaction with people. And, while large and small birds might be good candidates for therapy, Pet Partners urges that, “strong training is necessary for birds to work in therapeutic settings.”
“All chickens working in programs involving humans should be screened for parasites and salmonella by a licensed veterinarian on a yearly basis,” Bailey advises. Additionally, a chicken must also pass appropriate evaluation and training through a national therapy animal organization, and the bird must be bathed before interacting with clients. “I would not suggest anyone with a compromised immune system work with chickens,” she adds.
While therapy chickens must be sufficiently trained, family pets can have a therapeutic benefit without the formality—though, finding the right pet can take time.
“The chickens that work with me are all Silkies,” Bailey says, “and I find this breed to contain some initial qualities and dispositions that people find very appealing.”
Silkies are small, fluffy chickens; they feel more familiar to people—more like fuzzy kittens than birds.
“They are small and cannot fly because they do not have flight feathers, and they have been raised to be pets so their temperament is typically calm, quiet, and curious,” Bailey says. “People are amazed and thoroughly enjoy feeling the warm and incredibly soft feathers and hearing the soft coos and clucks a chicken will make.”
Re-Establishing Lost Connections
While backyard and small-scale chicken farming has grown in popularity with people looking for more control and connection to their sources of food, people have also discovered how severed our relationships with animals has become.
“The popularity of keeping backyard chickens may have helped more urban people become reacquainted with how human beings have been connected to and relied on animals for thousands of years,” Bailey says.
The unsuspecting chicken is not only mending our relationships with the origins of our food, but it’s nurturing emotional connections with people in need, to the health benefit of everyone.
“I think anytime we have an opportunity to experience the world in a different way than we were raised or taught, we have a perspective change and it’s quite difficult to go back to old ways of belief,” Bailey says. “Chickens are sentient beings with unique personalities, abilities to reason. They recognize faces, form social bonds, and are incredibly smart. I believe some chickens make choices to connect differently with people, and these connections help provide many people with learning, growth, and healing.”
Follow Tanya Bailey’s registered therapy chicken, Woodstock, on Twitter @therapychicken.