Zootherapy with rabbits



Elena Grisafi Favre

Responsible of the « la Colline aux lapins » rescue and graduated zootherapist at the International Institute of Pet Therapy



Anyone who has shared or who shares his life with an animal has probably already experienced once in his life the thaumaturgic power that our pet has on us.

When we are sad or anxious, there is nothing better than stroking a cat or go walk one’s dog, or watch rabbits play carelessly in the garden.

When we feel alone, abandoned or unloved, it is enough to talk to our animal; it will be there to comfort us, to fill a void, to give us a cuddle. The time taken to observe him, to share our life with him, to have someone to take care about brings a lot of benefits to our physical and psychological health.

Recognition of the therapeutic value of animals, which dates back to antiquity and has become increasingly important throughout the centuries, has today a methodological structure with many job specializations that are specific according to specific pathologies. The name given to this new therapeutic approach is called pet therapy (translation of the English neologism "pet therapy" invented by the child psychiatrist Boris Levinson in years 1950-60).

In children with specific problems, in elderly and in some categories of patients or people with physical and mental disabilities, but also for people in a state of post-traumatic stress or detainees, any contact with an animal can help meet some basic needs (affection, feeling secure, interpersonal relations) and, thus, can contribute to the recovery of some capacities that the person may have lost. The animal can act as a buffer for stress and conflicts in difficult situations (e.g. between inmates and between staff and prisoners in prisons). The presence of animals stimulates attention, helps establish eye and touch contact, creates communicative and emotional interactions, favors relaxation et controls anxiety or excitation. Petting or brushing an animal stimulates movement of the arms of people that have limited movement capacity while walking with animals can stimulate legs and bring challenge to an exercise, instead of boredom.

Animals in zootherapy…

Any domestic pet can be used in pet therapy activities. There are still criteria that must be kept in mind when choosing the animal according to its kind, race and the type of customer with whom it will work.

In general, animals pets that assist zootherapists, whether feathered or furred, should be sociable, gentle, not timid or too shy, naturally resistant to stress and in good physical and psychological health. A very good relation and trust with the human zootherapist are also essential to carry out this activity.

Animals are there to support us in our therapy work. This does not mean that our animal must be used and overworked like one would with a tool.

Our first task is to know the animals with whom we work so that signs of distress can be immediately identified. We must never forget that we have tools and methods to protect ourselves in a situation that makes us uncomfortable, but this may not always be the case for our animals, who absorb stress, negative thoughts, non-wellness of people with whom they are.

Animals assisting therapists have specific needs that must be taken into account. Just like us, they also need to relax, decompress or simply rest. They need to play, to live according to the needs of their species. They need a companion if they are gregarious animals (rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas, rats, doves), they need to exercise, to run, to jump and not to remain alone in a cage between one intervention and the next. They need good quality food, a comfortable bedding, loving and regular care, and a deserved rest after work.

The rabbit, a polyvalent therapist assistant

My favorite pet therapy assistants are of course rabbits.

Rabbits are very endearing. They conquers us by their shyness and their discretion, but also by their unexpected boldness and borderless curiosity. Their naive look, their wide eyes, large ears and soft fur make us want to protect them, to give them the most precious secrets, to carry them, stroke them or to brush them. All rabbits teach us respect, sharing, and encourage us to use our hands gently, to find another mode of communication, different from those we are used to. Rabbit are good sensory stimulator; their softness gives us confidence and makes us smile when taking the time to observe them when roaming free.

Ulysse and Luna, a real case

Ulysses and Luna accompany me during pet therapy sessions with elderly people. They were part of a litter that was abandoned and came to my rabbit rescue. They were aged about 3 months when I've taken them.

By observing closely the behavior of the young rabbits of this litter, I immediately noticed Ulysse and Luna for their healthy vivacity, their gentleness and their curiosity. They were not shy at all and immediately expressed an interest in me and people around them. They could be carried without fear reaction, be handled in all directions without struggling, and be put on their back obediently. They have never bitten or shown signs of aggression, even during the first time I brought them for a visit to the nursing home. Residents were so happy and moved by the presence of these two little rabbits that the choice was quickly made: I decided to take them home and to turn them into my work associates.

Ulysses and Luna are highly appreciated by the residents: first, their average size allows me to settle comfortably on the lap of people so that they can pet them, brush them, enjoy their warmth but they are not very heavy nor an invasive presence.

The color of my rabbits (they are white with black spots, "they look like Dalmatians" to quote a lady) reminds elderly people of past events: "We too had rabbits like these at our farm", tells me Mrs. F., "but ours were to eat”. Often it is the opportunity to share stories about life on their farm, the animals present on the farm, events that marked the sequence of seasons, work in the fields, family stories. Stories that are intertwined with those of other residents who suddenly also have something to tell. All of a sudden, the room that was quiet and a little sad resonates with heartfelt and enthusiastic voices.

Ulysses and Luna's characters are perfect: they are nice, discreet, hugging and quiet. They let themselves be easily carried, petted, brushed, fed by hand without biting or show signs of impatience.

They also allow kisses, especially Luna, which became the favorite of Mrs. B.

 « The session is ending, Madam, I need to leave. »

- « Really, you need to go ? Oh I wish I could keep Luna with me ! »

- « We will come back soon, Madam, et now, I will take Luna to bring her home, she needs to rest a little now. ».

Mrs. B. looks at me with an air of young girl. I understand…

- « If you want, you can give her a kiss before we leave».

A radiant look and Mrs. B gives a soft kiss on the nose of Luna, and all happy, she gives me back my rabbit.


 « Un animal n’est pas une marchandise. C’est par l’action des hommes qu’il est devenu un compagnon et c’est par amour qu’il nous reste fidèle dans notre vie quotidienne. Il nous fait confiance. Il a donc le droit au respect, à la dignité, au bonheur. Et nous avons des obligations à son égard ». (Auteur inconnu)




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