A Bit Different

Chicken Therapy: The Health Benefits Of Feathered Friends

If you check out the Oxford dictionary you’ll see that ‘therapy’, a term rooted in ancient Greek and Latin meaning to cure or to heal, is defined as the treatment of an illness or problem.

Treatments that address physical issues would include massage or chiropractic and of course, there are a whole host of modalities to deal with mental health issues: talk therapy, primal scream, rebirthing, art, dance or play, biofeedback, eye movement desensitization… you get the picture.

In our culture we treat the mind, spirit and body as though they were completely separate entities rather than understand that what happens with one impacts the others.

For instance, studies have shown that people with clinical depression tend to have shrinkage in certain regions of the brain. Those changes can have an impact on memory, concentration, sleep, and oxygen levels. Conversely, when we suffer physical ailments and pain they can contribute to adverse mental health.

I work in the field of mental health and substance use and can see plenty of correlation between them and early childhood trauma, poverty, chronic health issues and physical injuries. Understanding that they are so inextricably linked, our provincial government merged mental health and addictions programs into one portfolio just five years ago.

It’s hard to imagine that some of the most economically prosperous countries (recognizing the disparities between folks) also have high rates of mental health and stress-related issues. I think that’s, in part, because we have conflated notions of happiness with material wealth and in our pursuit for possessions we have forgotten the things that bring true satisfaction to us as social beings: connection with family, community and above all, ourselves.

The harder we work to attain ‘stuff’ the less time we have for the small things of everyday living, spending time with those we love, or doing the things that bring meaning to our lives. At the end of the day, many of us are exhausted trying to keep up with societal expectations, to pay our bills in times of an increasing cost of living, and have substituted social media ‘friends’ and online ‘influencers’ with real life connections.

I think that the last 27 months of living with Covid 19 has sharpened our focus to the world around us. Many of us were more confined to our homes or workplaces; and some, lucky to be able to work from home. The pandemic provided us with the rare opportunity to be forced, en masse, to slow down and seize that chance to be able to re-evaluate what was truly important or to engage in the things we had missed: more time reading, walking in our neighbourhoods or spending time with our families. Some of us became acutely aware of the things we’ve lost in the grind of our everyday lives. In our isolation many of us felt lonely and got a dog or cat for company. And loads of folks became first time chicken keepers.

Some might have seen poultry as a means to provide eggs or meat for their families, while others sought a hobby that allowed us to focus on something in our backyards and away from the big picture of a global pandemic. Perhaps the silver lining in the stampede to get chickens meant that a whole new audience was introduced to another benefit that we old-timers already knew: chicken therapy.

We all know what dogs and cats can bring to our lives: unconditional love, companionship, entertainment, responsibility, empathy and even a calming effect due to the release of the feel good chemicals: dopamine, seratonin and oxytocin. I think chickens serve the same function. Hanging out, observing your flock is a gateway to another world, a bit like daydreaming in which all the cares of the day fall away and you can become engrossed in watching all their antics: the clucking, scratching, pecking, and best of all, the chicks.

I like to take my coffee out to the chicken pen, plunk myself down on a bench and wait till all my birds encircle me looking for treats, and maybe a bit of company. It’s a great opportunity to observe their behaviour, identify the differences between individuals and sometimes to spot health problems while you can still nip them in the bud. If you have issues with skittish hens or ‘aggressive’ roosters sitting with them is a way of fostering trust and allowing them to accept you as a fully fledged member of their group.

Sure, chickens see their keepers as purveyors of food, but I also think they bond with us and some of them actually enjoy our company as though we were part of the flock. Animals are non-judgmental: they accept you for who you are regardless of age, ability, size, shape, ethnicity or gender. I notice a number of folks in online chicken groups mention that their birds have had a stabilizing effect on their kids on the autism spectrum or with other behaviour challenges. A number of keepers of disabled house chickens are themselves disabled.

Seniors’ care homes have visiting animal therapy programs that sometimes include chickens. My mother lived with me for six years near the end of her life. We spent hours with my flock. While I cleaned the coop she would sit feeding the birds and even as her dementia progressed she still enjoyed visiting them daily.

“I tell everyone I don’t own chickens because of the eggs and I certainly don’t eat them. I own them for my sanity. Nothing makes me happier then sitting out watching them peck around and seeing the different interactions they have.” – Analisa LaSalle

“To be honest, I believe my chickens give more to me than the other way around. Being with them reminds me I am still the child on the farm no matter what has happened over these many years. While sitting in my back yard they all come around and hang out. I am not alone. They love me. Animals don’t have to bond with us. This little flock chooses me to be their friend. Often they chunter away in low tones as they try to communicate.  Softly I speak back. Being with these gentle creatures calms my mind and heart. With all the confusing tragedies going on in life being with my flock keeps me balanced. When it comes to feeling love, peace, and, acceptance I know they have my back.” Jacqueline Windess

“I just spent easily an hour sitting on the steps of the coop in the dark with glass of wine after a long 12 hour shift, in my PJs the weather perfect. I could hear the crickets and frogs and the entire world just slowed down. My four older hens usually crazy during the day were so calm and fell asleep next to me. They’re so sweet my heart melted. It’s serious therapy and at this moment I realized this is why we do it.” – Marlene Redmayne Morrow

“As someone who suffers with bouts of depression, I never knew how much happiness a chicken could bring to me or how much they would become my therapy animals and not just pets. Anytime I spend time with them, whether it’s my indoor or outdoor chickens, my mood always improves. I don’t think I could ever not have chickens now. The love and happiness a chicken brings is so pure and special.” – Stephanie Noratel

“Chickens relieve my anxiety and depression and make me happy where nothing else does. I recently had to re-home some because I’m a renter. I cried for days when I was told I had to get rid of them and wanted to die for real. My family doesn’t come around and I have very few friends, so my chickens and their love means so, so much to me.” – Lisa Cannan

“I work from home and have ADHD. Most days my medication keeps me focused and on track but some days like today when I feel my brain spinning on the rat wheel and I can’t get off there is only one kind of therapy that works: chicken therapy. There is something about spending time with them, watching the methodical movement of scratching and pecking, of listening to the low hum of their cooing- it’s resets my brain and helps me get off the endless rat wheel. I am so thankful that I followed my dream of raising chicken, they enriched me so.” – Shivani Shimangal

“Every evening when I sit in my recliner to watch a little television, Henry takes his place on my shoulder for snuggles. If I’ve had a good day, or a stressful day, he makes every day amazing.” – Ed Walker “Ginger is Henry’s significant other. We snuggle every night too. Love this girl with all my heart.” – Lisa LeBlanc

“In 2020 my family and I were planning on getting chicks but were not ready yet. My parents have chickens and I got five baby chicks for my mom which I had for less than 24 hours before giving them to her. By then I had bonded with one pullet and went to visit her every other day. I would cry after leaving her. My mom said that she was meant to be mine. I had to scramble to finish our coop and get her some friends. Bluebell will jump in my lap for cuddles, stare at me and fall asleep. She will follow me around the yard, try to protect me and peck at my shoes to be picked up.

Having chickens keeps me active and outside everyday. I watch over my girls when they free range and spend time with them, even in winter. The vitamin D from the sun is definitely good for me. I also have anxiety, that is sometimes severe. When I am holding Bluebell it helps calm me. For her to be relaxed, I have to be relaxed. I can’t stay anxious or angry or sad when I’m with my six girls, but especially with her. She makes me laugh, smile and feel loved.” – Alicia Exsted

“I am prone to migraine headaches and have found that many times I head out to the flock with the start of one, only to realize when I come back in that it’s completely gone. This, and other therapeutic effects, make perfect scientific sense, as interacting with animals is known to cause both dopamine and seratonin release in the brain. Dopamine regulates feelings of motivation, pleasure and even helps regulate blood flow. The really interesting one is seratonin, as it acts as a mood regulator and is known as the “happiness chemical”. Low seratonin levels can manifest as feelings of sadness, lack of motivation, and anxiety. It also regulates digestive processes, wound healing, and vasoconstriction. Migraines are also known as vascular headaches, so it makes sense that they would be helped by these chemicals being produced. In short, chicken therapy is a very legitimate treatment for a huge number of emotional and physical ailments.” – Sara Franklin

Although chickens are domesticated they do connect us to nature – being outside, being aware of how other species operate in ways different than ourselves. I also think they are a link to our past when maybe life seemed simpler and more straightforward, and perhaps a tad less ominous. For some of us they are nostalgic reminders of childhood on farms, at country fairs or even petting zoos.

In a world in which our value is often measured by what we do (i.e. our occupation), how much we earn or how much ‘stuff’ we have accumulated, spending time with chickens might provide us with the excuse to slow down and push the outside world away, even for just a few minutes here or there.

Professional therapists are often out of the reach of many folks, either due to geography or finances. If you’re a chicken keeper you’ve got some feathered counsellors already at your disposal who’d be happy to spend time with you, listen to your woes, look deeply in your eyes and accept you at face value all in exchange for a little care and respect – and of course, treats are always appreciated.

“In 2017 I obtained three very special chicks that made a huge impact in my ability to cope with my life long struggle with anxiety and depression. Only one of them is still alive, but having chickens has literally changed my life.

Those first hens brought me back from the darkest places I’ve ever been. I acquired them by happenstance and fought tooth and nail to keep them to protect my mental health. After decades of struggle with medications and therapies that never seemed to make headway, these unconventional, fluffy happy-pills were exactly what I needed. Because of my unique situation our city developed the first ever legal protection for certain livestock to be licensed, medical, emotional support animals.

I know that most people have never had a relationship with a chicken beyond their dinner plate. However, there is something really incredible, and indescribable to those who have never experienced it, about the genuine reciprocal love and appreciation you can have with a chicken.

They are inherently funny, individual personalities that make every day such a joy. I think many see those images of chicken farms with thousands of them in one barn and it’s easy to pretend they don’t have feelings or individual thoughts of their own.

When raised with love, chickens seek out affection and give back just the same. My connection with my girls stems from my childhood and is fully sensory based: the sounds, smells and softness all bring a calm to me that I had no idea I developed at an early age due to trauma.

When I feel my anxiety creeping in, sitting on the porch in the sun with one of my ladies on my lap is exactly the serotonin boost I need to gather the ability to keep moving forward.” – Nikki Pike

“I have 15 therapists; 19 if you count the ducks. When I tell people I have an entire team of therapists they look at me funny. The last couple years have been very hard, both physically and emotionally. There are days when I can’t get out of bed and don’t know what I would do it wasn’t for my chickens. More than once I’ve thought about ending my life and stopping this pain and suffering and inevitably I would find a chicken standing there waiting quietly to talk to me or to beg for something or to just outright scream at me for something and I always imagined they were telling me, “No, screw that giving up stuff”.

They make me get back up, dust myself off and keep going. After all, who would give them corn? I remember that life is precious and beautiful in that as long as I keep trying I will find the answers I’m looking for. I have a wonderful husband who not only tolerates, but sometimes I think encourages my crazies. He recently reassured me that I would not have to give up my chickens, even when we moved.

And through it all, my bitchy Lemon is always there to comfort me and the dog. Just this morning as I lay half asleep I heard the front door open, then little toenails clicking across my bathroom floor followed by a little soft whoosh as she landed on the bed next to me. Having chickens has profoundly amazed me at how much they have saved me. – Tara Lynn Miller

Many thanks to the folks that shared their photos and heartfelt stories: Analisa LaSalle, Alicia Exsted, Ed Walker, Jacqueline Windess, Lisa Cannan, Lisa LeBlanc, Marlene Redmayne Morrow, Nikki Pike, Sara Franklin, Stephanie Noratel and Tara Lynn Miller, used with permission.

If you’ve got an anecdote or photos you’d like to share on this post please feel free to drop me a line via the ‘contact’ button on my home page.

4 comments on “Chicken Therapy: The Health Benefits Of Feathered Friends

  1. I finally got around to reading through this article and was surprised to find I made the cut. I feel like finally there’s a world of people that really know exactly what I’m going through and how I feel about these feathered dinosaurs, it keeps me from feeling alone in a time when I feel very alone, nobody but my husband can understand even a little bit of what these guys give to me on a daily basis and why I have made my entire life revolving around theirs.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. katiebsouthard

    Hey there! I’m a recovering addict with years of sobriety that I white knuckled for awhile. I also have multiple sclerosis, depression, and anxiety. I am currently raising a flock of five and the impact raising animals has had on my mental health has been astounding and wonderful. I couldn’t agree more with your article about how the pursuit of happiness isn’t aligned with possessions but rather finding meaning and purpose in our days. I feel this in my soul. I am actively trying to find someone in Colorado who can help me get my hens listed as emotional or mental health support to avoid local HOA/government attempting to rid me of keeping them in my backyard. I own my home and they haven’t said anything yet as the flock is still young but I want to get ahead of the game. I have multiple disabilities that would make for an easy letter, but lack a mental health professional who agrees and I’d like to get ahead of the game. Do you know of any resources or a therapist who can assist?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the feedback, I totally agree.

      I’m sorry and have no connections in that area, but one of my guest contributors lives in that state so I will reach out to her. Can you send me your email by using the ‘contact’ button on my homepage and I’ll see if I can help? Good luck.


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