Therapy Chickens Deepen Healing of Therapist

Having her chickens come home to roost helped heal Tanya Bailey of St. Paul, MN, during and after treatment for cancer in her left tonsil, at the base of her tongue and lymph nodes.

Real chickens. Silkies. In a back-yard coop, built by Tanya’s husband and primary caregiver, Peter.

Tanya is a social worker, therapist and animal-assisted interactions specialist at the University of Minnesota. She runs a program in which the campus community can interact with registered therapy animals, including chickens.

Based on research that shows connecting with animals can reduce a person’s blood pressure and heart rate, the program is designed to be a stress-reducing outlet for students and staff.

After receiving a cancer diagnosis in late-summer 2016, Tanya needed to reduce her own stress, and began to see the benefits of bringing her work home with her.

“Animals have been one of the most influential factors throughout my life, especially when times have been tough,” she said. “Having chickens that I work with in a therapeutic context as my sources of support has been a huge part of my healing.”

Tanya’s cancer treatment was aggressive. She had aspired to some form of business-as-usual, but by week two she remembers feeling housebound. “I needed to rest. I was tired and did not feel good,” she said.

But the chickens provided a distraction. “I had to take care of them. I had to physically go outside to be with them,” Tanya said. “It helped me forget what I was going through. It put me into the present in a different way. I did not lie in bed.”

Tanya with Atilla the Hen, one of the therapy chickens-in-residence at Tanya’s home.

As chemo and radiation took their toll, Tanya watched a lot of what she called “Chicken TV.” She didn’t have much energy, but managed every day to take a few steps into the back yard, where she connected with nature and sat on a bench in front of the chicken coop.

“I would just sit and watch them,” she said. “They all have personalities, and they’re so happy to see me. For that moment, not only was I smiling and engaged, but it removed the thoughts of, ‘What’s going on with me?’”

Don’t tell the others, but Tanya’s favorite of her five chickens-in-residence is Atilla the Hen, nicknamed Tilly. (Name courtesy of her husband, Peter.)

It’s partly the plumage, suggesting Andre Agassi’s Wimbledon-winning mullet in the 1990s. But it’s mostly because the registered therapy chicken, and her flock of friends, have helped heal the therapist, on the therapist’s own terms.

“I had seen other people go through cancer, and decided how I wanted to do it,” Tanya said. “This was not something evil, or that I would feel angry about. I called it an uninvited visitor. It came, it stayed for awhile, and we asked it to leave.”

And it did. Tanya’s health is restored, and she is healed, too. Her cancer has—with apologies to Tilly & Co.—flown the coop.

Tanya Bailey was treated at the University of Minnesota Health. She is also the animal-assisted interactions coordinator for the PAWS Program (Pet Away Worry & Stress) at Boynton Health at the University of Minnesota.

Watch Tanya Bailey’s Video

  • Alison

    Thank you for such an uplifting story. I love our cat Randy. He brings me so much joy. I love him like a son. He gives so much love in return. I cannot thank him enough. He has saved my life because I have a reason to go on. Your story is so uplifting and genuinely helps others who may be struggling. I highly recommend anyone with a serious illness to get a pet. It will help you not focus on your illness and get out of your head. Thanks again and God bless you. I am praying for you.

  • Carol Montana

    My husband was a Pediatric neurologist and one of the kindest and most brilliant individual . He worked at a State hospital for people without insurance. Patients ran the gamu from MD , MS, ALS, Etc. They did not allow pet therapy in the the 80’s . So I would wait til after work and call over to the hospital and make sure the administrators had gone home. Then I would bring my dogs over. We lived on the grounds of the hospital. One patient who hadn’t spoken would say”Ooh he’s so cunning ooh I just love him”. The nurses were in shock because otherwise Marie never spoke. One dog would bark at the door to go see his friends at the hospital. I took them over three nights a week for nine years. They also brought patients to my horse farm and a horse stole a patient’s tuna sandwich. Pet therapy is amazing. They have a program in Naples which has expanded due to the enormous generosity of people in Naples. They have one program just for soldiers with PTSD. I encourage people with wonderful pets to do this it has great rewards.

  • Wendy Traczyk

    Hi,Tanya. My name is Wendy. I say to this day that my Cavalier King Charles Spaniel dog,Romeo????,has saved my life several times with non-stop love,giving me a reason to get of the couch (or even go to the bathroom in a bucket cause the water’s shut off). I want to walk again, but I can’t even find a PCP because of my complex medical issues.,but Rome’s home,licking my tears away. I’ve lost my daughter, my X(who beat me while driving with our dtr in back seat),took advantage of my disability,as judge could clearly see I need help…but Romeo was home waiting in the window,kisses n love abundantly all night. I’ve told my family I want to breed this “love sponge” to train for healing. They don’t support it. I was long for 17 yrs.only 47 yo. I love your story. I want to join PAWS.. Sincerely, hope to hear in UP. Wendy Go PACK Go…lol