Those little critters that do so much good

7 October 2016

Founded in 1995, the animal facility at the Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Montréal still piques the curiosity and sparks the delight of patients, employees and visitors alike.

Richard Lauzière, who in the past was president of the Comité hospitalier des animaux thérapeutiques (CHAT or the Hospital Committee for Psychiatric Service Animals), was aware of the problem of animals being abandoned by hospitalized patients. To overcome this regrettable situation, Richard set up a pet sitting service so that patients could remain in contact with their pets during their stay at the Institute. 

One visit is never enough

The animal facility, which in the beginning was designed as a place for furry or feathered animals to stay while their owners were hospitalized at the Institute, enables anyone who is at the Institute to visit the animals during the facility’s opening hours. Beyond what could be termed as recreational visits, the Institute’s professionals also choose to accompany their patients to the facility during therapeutic activities. 

Annie Gaudreau, an occupational therapist with the Customized and Specialised Service Program – Long-term Psychotic Disorders, visits the animal facility every week with one of her patients.

“These visits allow my patient to be more active, to break with his routine and to visit with their favorite animal, George the rabbit. I am able to follow his functional and social development via the small tasks that he carries out for his favorite rabbit. From week to week, he has made surprising progress.”

The therapeutic benefits for people who have a mental health disorder and who spend time with animals has been well documented in scientific literature. The Foundation of the Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Montréal believes in the benefits that this initiative provides to patients and is proud to support the activities of the animal facility.

It is an interesting fact the Institute is the only Montreal health institution to offer accommodation to the four-legged friends of its patients.

Volunteers at the Heart of the Animal Facility 

In and of itself, the warm welcome given by the team of volunteers at the animal facility is well worth the visit. For more than 20 years, the volunteers have held the fort. They welcome people with such big smiles that anyone can see the passion that drives them on a daily basis.

Every week, tens of devoted volunteers take turns taking care of the animals. Whether it be to look after the cages, to feed the animals or to welcome the dozens of visitors, the volunteers spare no effort to ensure that the facility remains a warm and friendly place.

Lise Richard, a volunteer with the animal facility for eight years, underscores the importance of an animal facility in a hospital environment. “I see clients who, during their first visit to the facility, are timid and discrete but who, slowly but surely, thanks to the contact they have with the animals, open up and tell me stories about the animals they have had in the past.”

Lise Richard, a volunteer at the Institute’s animal facility

Lise Richard, a volunteer at the Institute’s animal facility

Every week, tens of devoted volunteers take turns taking care of the animals. Whether it be to look after the cages, to feed the animals or to welcome the dozens of visitors, the volunteers spare no effort to ensure that the facility remains a warm and friendly place.

Lise Richard, a volunteer with the animal facility for eight years, underscores the importance of an animal facility in a hospital environment. “I see clients who, during their first visit to the facility, are timid and discrete but who, slowly but surely, thanks to the contact they have with the animals, open up and tell me stories about the animals they have had in the past.”

Lise also talks about the poignant story of Muriel, a client who, since the opening of the animal facility, goes there every week to lend a helping hand to the volunteers and to relax in the company of the animals.

According to Lise, the clientele is not just made up of people who are treated at the Institute. “There are former patients of the Institute who are monitored as outpatients, who are unable to have pets of their own at home and who come back regularly to pet their former companions.” The same could be said of several employees who are not averse to relaxing at the facility during their lunch breaks.

The Institute’s Fauna

The animal facility is an ecosystem in its own right. Guinea pigs, hamsters, rabbits and exotic birds have taken up residence at the facility much to the delight of the clientele. In an adjoining room, hidden from public view, the facility is able to accommodate several cats while their masters are in hospital.

Ninon Châtelain, an animal health technician, looks after the health of all these small residents by conducting regular, basic examinations, by tracking files and by referring sick animals to a veterinarian if need be.

What are Animal-Assisted Activities?

Asked to define animal-assisted activities, Ninon Châtelain makes the distinction between animal-assisted activities and animal therapy. “Animal therapy services require a qualified practitioner who has undergone training with Zoothérapie Québec. Here at the Institute, we encourage contact with animals for pleasure and relaxation.”

According to statistics provided recently by the animal facility, more than 60 patients visit the facility each month.

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