At Furaha Centre for exceptional Children in Meru town, a cat and a herd of rabbits mingle playfully with residents as occupational therapists monitor the interactions closely.

Furaha Centre is a day care institution providing occupational therapy services for children with Cerebral Palsy, Down syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Autism and delayed milestones.

New therapy complex

Some 30 kilometers away from Meru town at Furaha Centre’s upcoming occupational therapy complex, two young donkeys Benny and Sandy are undergoing training as part of the organisation’s new approach in therapy.

Furaha Centre will have a ground breaking Ceremony for construction of a modern occupational therapy Centre at Rwarera in Buuri on June 15th.

Founded by Marek Krakus and his wife Jadlyne Makena, five years ago, the day care centre has been offering conventional occupational therapy facilitated by professionals until they discovered that animals can complement their services.

Makena, an occupational therapist and co-founder of Furaha Centre, explains that rabbits and donkeys are part of their animal-assisted therapy programme.

This is aimed at helping children with neuro developmental and neurological conditions reach their highest ability.

Training

Animal assisted therapy, also referred to as pet therapy, is a complementary rehabilitation procedure that uses trained animals in supervised treatment sessions.

International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organisations (IAHAIO) defines Animal Assisted Therapy as a goal oriented, planned and structured therapeutic intervention delivered by human service professionals to enhance physical, cognitive, behavioral and socio-emotional functioning of the therapy recipient.

According to the British Association for Counsellors and Psychotherapists, animal assisted therapy “can help clients open up and feel more at ease while giving therapists insights into clients’ feelings and behavior…”

By cuddling, stroking and touching an animal, it stimulates senses, lowers blood pressure and help achieve muscle movements.

Makena says occupational therapists in western countries have been increasingly embracing use of horses (hippotherapy), donkeys (onotherapy), dogs, cats, rabbits and Llamas for animal assisted therapy.

 “Animal assisted therapy is a technique where we introduce an animal to children to help achieve various treatment goals. The animal-child and therapist interactions help us pick behaviors that need to be worked on.”

“We particularly use the animals to work on muscle movements, cognition, social interaction and emotional issues,” Makena says.

She notes that the centre started exploring the introduction of animal assisted therapy three years ago through use of horses and Llamas.

“In the process, we discovered that Llamas and horses were quite expensive and needed a lot of care. However, we learnt that donkeys can be as effective as horses in supporting our therapy sessions.”

“We started with rabbits which are easier to maintain and work with children,” she explains.

Learning process

While Krakus is undertaking an online course to become a donkey handler for animal assisted therapy, Makena is learning the ropes of improving occupational therapy outcomes using animals.

“The handler must be able to understand the animal’s behavior and needs when in a therapy session. Animals like donkeys have the ability to detect a person’s emotions and react accordingly. This is what I am learning,” Krakus says.

According to Makena, animal assisted therapy is of great help in patients with cerebral palsy as it can help achieve vital body movements.

“Our intention with the donkeys is to have children ride and assist in achieving specific muscle movements that cannot be achieved through conventional therapy. It can also be beneficial for maintenance therapy like bowel movement and general body exercise,” she adds.

For patients with autism, working with animals, she says, helps address social behavior issues.

Autism presents with social integration impairment where a child lives a solitary life. Severe conditions present with hyper-activity, where a child has a very short concentration span.

“Use of animals can help break repetitive behavior, correct mannerisms and modify some behavior in autistic children,” the Furaha Centre director explains.

She adds that in cases of ADHD, introducing pet animals like cats and rabbits to children helps address their aggressiveness.

“The interaction with a live animal is expected to improve their human interactions. We have chosen the most acceptable animals like rabbits because of cultural biases,” Makena explains.

However, Makena says there is a need for development of expertise and inclusion of animal-assisted therapy in college curriculums.

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