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Guidelines for the use of animals in a wide range of animal-assisted activities and therapies, developed by the Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS), have been substantially revised and updated.

The Animal Assisted Interventions: SCAS Code of Practice for the UK (the code) is a voluntary code intended to offer guidance on good practice for designing and delivering AAI effectively and safely, to help ensure the welfare needs of both humans and animals are met.

Veterinary involvement
The guidelines have particular relevance to the veterinary profession, according to SCAS chair and veterinary surgeon Dr Elizabeth Ormerod. For many people, maintaining contact with companion animals is very important, whether for social, health or emotional reasons. For many who are confined to life in nursing homes, long stay hospitals, psychiatric facilities or prisons, however, they are denied these benefits due to no-pets policies and potentially a lack of awareness around the positive associations companion animals can offer.

“There is increasing awareness among health and social care professionals of the benefits accruing from the presence of animals; however, most are unaware that expert animal knowledge and careful multidisciplinary planning is required. This is where the veterinary team can be put to excellent use, to improve the quality of life, health and happiness of those less fortunate by being involved in the behaviour, health and welfare assessment of companion animals in care homes, hospitals and other institutions,” added Dr Ormerod.

Why do we need a Code?
Animals are increasingly being deployed in therapeutic settings due to the acknowledged benefits that arise from human-animal interactions1. There are no National Occupational Standards in place for AAI in the UK; therefore, SCAS recognised a need to provide evidence-based advice and as such developed the Code, with input from the charity’s expert membership.

The introduction of AAI programmes requires careful planning to ensure interventions are safe for all involved and that animal welfare is not compromised. The SCAS Code informs professionals, patients and the public about key steps required to achieve best practices. It encourages interdisciplinary collaboration across the caring professions in the planning, development and maintenance of programmes; and between practitioners and researchers in documenting outcomes. Through such collaboration, programmes become more effective and sustainable.

Dr Ormerod explains the background to the development of the guidelines:

“The experience of SCAS members, through surveys and visits to health and social care facilities, is that many programmes involve animals in an ad hoc fashion.

Animals are often introduced without seeking veterinary advice as to their suitability or welfare. Few facilities have adequate written policy or protocol, hence the need for a well-researched document to inform those working or volunteering in such facilities.”

“It is necessary to mitigate risk when using animals in AAI, both in terms of upholding animal welfare and to protect humans from any potential zoonotic diseases. The AAI SCAS Code of Conduct will help ensure all parties are working safely and fulfilling the needs of the institution and animal owners.”

The guidelines are free to access and may be downloaded from the SCAS website http://www.scas.org.uk/animal-assist...e-of-practice/

The Code was first launched by SCAS in 2013 and has been substantially revised to reflect current understanding of AAI, particularly in relation to safe practice and animal welfare. Advice on zoonoses has been expanded to address issues pertaining to farm animals, exotic species and risks associated with raw meat products.

Who is the Code for?
The Code is for organisations, charities, businesses or individuals who design, manage, organise and implement the delivery of AAI programmes. They are also a key resource for veterinary teams whose work alongside these teams. Their services may be commissioned by others or, in some cases, those responsible for the management of an AAI programme may also be the AAI facilitator who delivers the session. The Code also serves to inform staff and clients in health, social care and educational institutions to which AAI is delivered.
  1. AAI sessions, delivered responsibly, offer numerous benefits to the participants, including those involved in delivering the intervention, as well as to the animal. For recipients, AAI can have a positive impact on physical abilities as well as addressing psychological, social, educational, emotional and cognitive needs. There is irrefutable evidence that AAI programmes can confer many benefits to clients, staff, visitors, animals and the wider community. The presence of animals helps to normalise a facility and provides an opportunity for the giving and receiving of nurture and for tactile comfort. Animal presence produces measurable positive physiological responses in neurotransmitter levels, improved cardiovascular function and a reduction in the levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. The elevation in oxytocin levels, for example, facilitates social interaction, improving communication between residents and with staff. Mood is elevated, people are happier. Stress levels for residents, staff and visitors are reduced.