When I read about a mother-daughter team in Portland, Oregon, using pet llamas as ''therapy animals'', I thought the desire for novelty had outstripped common sense. However, the more I considered this, the more appropriate it seems.
Mountain Peaks Therapy Llamas and Alpacas was created by Lori and Shannon Gregory eight years ago. They'd heard that llamas are gentle and easy to keep, so they decided to buy a baby llama. The friendly, playful animal began to attract increasing numbers of visitors, so they decided to register him as a "therapy animal". They now own five llamas and three alpacas, and have taken them on over 1,000 visits to rehab centres and clinics. Patients are encouraged to play with the animals, offer them food, and stroke them. The animals have helped to calm the anxious and cheer up those suffering from depression. They even encouraged one mute patient to talk again.
How can the creatures have such a positive effect?
First, we all find animals, particularly unusual ones, at first surprising and sometimes frightening, but then most often amusing. Their presence, particularly if it's a creature we've never seen before, makes us smile and probably laugh, and this releases stress. When we laugh, we also release endorphin, and as a result, we're less likely to feel pain.
Second, an animal provides a talking point, a way to encourage those who may have withdrawn into themselves to start engaging with others. Watch anyone walking a dog. People stop to ask questions about the animal, and this often leads to further conversation. Studies show that increased sociability is strongly associated with feelings of happiness and contentment.
Third, when we feed or stroke an animal, we're helping to care for it. In 1975, Ellen Langer carried out a now-famous experiment in a care home where she showed that when residents are given responsibility, even something as simple as looking after a house plant, they became more alert and report greater wellbeing.
Finally, when we stroke a creature, we release oxytocin, a powerful neuropeptide. Marcus Heinrichs at the University of Freiburg showed that oxytocin reduces anxiety and increases a sense of calm. Peter Kirsch at the University of Giessen noted reduced fear when oxytocin levels are high. Donatella Marazziti at Pisa University found that oxytocin reduces inflammation and increases wound healing.
And most remarkable, Adam Guastella at Sydney University found that increased oxytocin levels were associated with greater emotional recognition in children with autistic spectrum disorder.
Llama therapy? Why ever not?
The Telegraph, London