When Tanya Bailey was diagnosed with cancer in 2016, she already knew that animals could have a big impact on mental health. As a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in animal-assisted therapy, Bailey has spent her career finding meaningful ways for people and animals to interact. It wasn’t until that cancer diagnosis, though, that Bailey got to see in action just how important the animal-human bond can be in the most acute situations. Bailey had always loved her chickens, she says, but during her treatment, they gave her a reason to keep going.
“We have cats, and we have dogs,” she says. “So it’s not like I didn’t have other beings in my life, but [the chickens] really required me to go to them, which meant I had to be intentional about doing that. I would go out and sit outside with them and just be there, because otherwise, I would just go back to bed and sleep the whole time. They were motivators for me to stay engaged with life a little bit.”
Going outside and being with her chickens was one of the few things during a chaotic and frightening time that she had control over. Every time she went outside to spend time with them, she regained agency in her life, little by little.
Bailey’s story helped reinforce for her the reasons why she believes in the power of animal-assisted therapy. In her therapy practice and in her current role as the animal-assisted interactions coordinator of the PAWS (Pet Away Worry & Stress) program at the University of Minnesota, she had seen the magic that different animals could have on people who needed a little furry (or, in the case of chickens, feathery) affection. She also has always loved chickens and thought they had a special place in therapeutic work. Now, with her own story in tow, she gets to see that magic continue every day.
She’s not the only one. More and more animal- assisted therapy programs are including chickens and other poultry animals in their practice. And as many clients begin to see when they start working with a chicken, preconceived ideas about birds are starting to fly the coop.
Chickens Can Make a Change
According to the American Psychological Association, animal-assisted therapy is “the therapeutic use of pets to enhance individuals’ physical, social, emotional or cognitive functioning. Animal-assisted therapy may be used, for example, to help people receive and give affection, especially in developing communication and social skills.”
Any animal can be used in animal-assisted therapy, but dogs and horses are the reigning favorites in the mental health kingdom. At Animal Assisted Therapy Programs of Colorado (AATPC), therapists work alongside 11 species of animals—including chickens—on a 3 1/2-acre ranch in suburban Arvada, Colorado, to serve anyone who can benefit from the comfort of a critter during mental and behavioral health services.
For Becki Taylor, the development director at AATPC, the question isn’t why chickens. It’s why not.
“I truly believe that any animal has some therapeutic lesson to provide,” Taylor says. “An animal doesn’t have to be sitting in your lap, super cuddly and kissing you all the time to be a therapy animal. Each animal provides their own unique impact to therapy.”
Their small flock of chickens exists alongside goats, alpacas, horses, miniature horses, donkeys, guinea pigs, rats, rabbits, cats and dogs. Therapy clients at AATPC—frequently children—can do their therapy alongside different animals at each session, and their therapists often help them navigate the challenges of their lives by observing and interacting with the animals.
For example, some children need to do their therapy sessions with animals that are more personable or familiar, such as a dog or a cat. Some children, on the other hand, can better relate to the attitudes of the farm animals, such as alpacas or chickens. In any of the interactions, therapists can use the animals’ temperaments and exchanges with not only the clients, but also with other animals, as entry points into conversation.
“Animal-assisted therapy has a really special way of connecting people to emotions and feelings and discovering new elements about themselves,” Taylor says. “Animals kind of have this way of being able to unlock things in us that a traditional counseling setting may not be able to approach.”
When therapy clients work with chickens, they can confront any fears they may have around birds, as well as rethink some of their biases. This often allows therapists to ask questions about the relationships in a client’s life, and the ways they feel misunderstood or judged. Some clients watch the birds and make observations about the pecking order within a flock, and then therapists can use that as an opportunity to talk about bullying.
In addition, chickens can be used to help children better understand themselves and their families.
“A flock of chickens can be a beautiful example of a blended family for those that have been adopted, are children of divorce or are creating their families by adopting,” says Kim Dennis, a master’s level intern at AATPC who frequently works with chickens and also used to keep chickens.
“Chickens have unique personalities that clients can observe and come to know, which speaks to the uniqueness of all people. I love seeing clients develop loving relationships with their favorite chicken and being excited about that bond, as for most, it’s their first time interacting with a chicken.”
Dennis also points out that chickens can help children learn regulation and how to calm themselves in order to be able to interact with the chickens without scaring them. Chickens are also great to help her clients ground themselves by using a 5-4-3-2-1 exercise.
“What are five colors I see on this chicken?” Dennis says. “What are four textures? What are three things I’m hearing from this chicken? And so on. Chickens also seem to enjoy being held while a person is meditating, so I have definitely done this before as well.”
It’s not just about what the chickens can teach, though. It’s also about the comfort a chicken can provide just by being there. Kathy Hulley, a licensed professional counselor and co-founder of the Mane Mission in Sedalia, Colorado, never expected to see the kind of profound interactions between her clients and chickens that she has now seen. The first time she saw a chicken making an impact, it was with a client who was a sex-trafficking survivor. This client had grown up on a farm with chickens, and when she came out to the Mane Mission for animal-assisted therapy, she gravitated toward the farm’s small coop.
She and one of the chickens bonded instantly, and she walked around with the chicken in her arms, even eating her lunch sitting right next to the bird and placing it on the back of a horse.
Hulley is the first to admit that she isn’t a chicken expert. But while she can’t tell one breed from the next, she can tell when something is working to benefit the mental health of her clients.
“An animal will choose you,” she says. “When [that client] went out there with the chickens, that one chose her. It was such a beautiful moment for me, because I didn’t expect that, and the look of healing on her face was just crazy. I think all animals sense your calmness, and the chickens are no different. They just know who is hurting. You never know when somebody comes out here what animal is going to touch their heart.”
The Right Therapy Chickens for the Job
Bailey is wild about Rhode Island Reds. There’s something special about the breed. To this day, after years of spending time around chickens, when she walks onto a farm, a Rhode Island Red is the first to approach her.
Unsurprisingly, this breed was one of the first she worked with in a therapeutic capacity. She learned quickly, though, that due to breeding for production, the genetic features of the Reds led to shorter lifespans and less time she could spend nurturing and bonding with an animal she loved. So her research on longer-living chicken breeds pointed her back to the drawing board, and led her to her current birds of a feather—silkies.
“I couldn’t believe how cute they were,” Bailey says. “When I do work with people with sort of the ‘regular’ chicken, a lot of people are really hesitant. The wonderful thing about silkies is they don’t look like a chicken. They look like puff balls.”
That’s one of the things she loves most about silkies is how they help break down people’s defenses. The students she works with at the University of Minnesota consistently tell her that they never would have thought petting a chicken would be so comforting and that they never expected a chicken to be so personable or smart. Those qualities—plus the ease of training and inherent sweetness of the breed—are what gives them a claw up in Bailey’s book.
But even though silkies are her go-to therapy chickens now, Bailey is quick to point out that they are far from the only breed suitable for the job.
“Any chicken can do this work … if they want to and … if they have the right partner that also wants to do the work with them,” she says. “In the right hands with somebody that knows birds, they probably could pick up any chicken and make it work.”
It comes down to personality and traits, according to Dennis at AATPC. If a chicken is comfortable around people and can be safely handled, it has the potential to be a good therapy chicken.
With Great Impact Comes Great Responsibility
Just like it is a therapist’s job to ensure the safety and well-being of their clients, it’s important that any humans working in animal-assisted therapy create spaces and environments that are safe for chickens and other animals involved. This not only means paying attention to cues and not pushing past boundaries, but it also means recognizing therapy animals as coworkers and partners in therapy, rather than just as tools to do the work.
“I call them literally my co-therapists, my co-educators and my-co facilitators because they are frankly doing just as much, if not more of the work than what I’m doing,” Bailey says.
She pointed to an ethical dilemma currently at play in the animal-assisted therapy world, in which the field itself is working to recognize the impact it has on the animals within it. That impact isn’t always positive, and that’s why her focus is on a sort of parity between herself, her clients and her furry and feathery co-therapists.
At AATPC, there is a practice-wide emphasis on ensuring the animals always have an out. “At the ranch we make sure that all animals are able to say ‘no’ in the way they can to being in a session, which emphasizes the importance of consent and respecting the wishes of others,” Dennis says.
The Heart of the Matter
Animal-assisted therapy is for everyone, and any person can benefit from the love of an animal, the Mane Mission’s Hulley emphasized. The universal nature of it comes from the fact that every animal has its own unique personality, just like every person who comes to their farm. There are people who gravitate to the horses or those, like the trafficking survivor, who find solace in the company of a chicken. Even the Mane Mission’s resident grumpy goose finds love with some of the farm’s visitors, now and then.
It comes down to the walls that animals can help humans break down. That’s why animal-assisted therapy works, and, as Bailey knows better than most, that’s why chickens and other animals can make life just a little more worth living.
“When you are with an animal, you can’t be disengaged from your gut,” she says. “You can’t be disengaged from your heart, because an animal makes that connection for you. I think we, as humans, think things have to be hard and difficult in order to work, but [chickens] really solidified for me the power of simple—the power of the little things.
“You don’t need to have this big, raging horse running full steam or a backyard full of llamas. [Chickens] are such a beautiful teacher of being present, finding the humor and finding the joy.”
This article originally appeared in the Nov./Dec. 2023 issue of Chickens magazine.