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Germany

Battling Addictions With Llama Love

Doctors at a clinic near Lake Constance report success in treating drug addiction and mental illness using fluffy and loveable llamas.

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Dependent no more: Therapeutic llamas are helping drug-addicted women get their lives back on track.

Once almost purely the domain of zoos and rug shops, therapists are increasingly turning to specially trained llamas and closely related alpacas for use in treating people with addictions.

According to a recent report in the German magazine "Natur and Kosmos," doctors at a women's clinic in the city of Höchsten near Lake Constance have reported success in treating women with addiction problems – from alcoholism to prescription drug dependency – through sessions with llamas and alpacas. They say a hug from a leggy, warm and wooly camilidae is just the right prescription for many women with addiction-driving emotional problems.

A safe distance

The secret lies in the shy, sensitive nature of the animals. "Unlike ponies or other animals, they don't besiege a patient," Josef Strasser, who cares for the animals at the Lake Constance clinic, told the magazine.

"They just stand still and let people decide for themselves how close they want to get to the animals," he said. That characteristic is especially important for women who have been abused.

According to Strasser, the llamas' dark eyes and thick, soft fleece has a calming effect on patients. "Just imagine an anorexic women," he said. "She's totally skinny and is always freezing. For a person like that, a warm fleece is wonderful."

On the road to recovery with Henry and Nestor

At the clinic, female patients spend as long as ten hours each week caring for the two llamas "Henry" and "Nestor" – feeding them, brushing them, cleaning their stalls and taking them for walks.

The clinic also uses other animals in its therapy programs, including guinea pigs, parakeets, donkeys, sheep and ponies. Doctors at the Höchsten clinic have been using animals in therapy for more than 20 years.

Strasser said that caring for the animals teaches the women to care for other, punctual and to get along with others better. "They also learn how to take responsibility," he said. "The animal becomes a medium through which the patients can experiment before returning back to society."

It also teaches them to set barriers – a skill they previously may have been unable to possess. Llamas are incredibly independent and won't cooperate with a caregiver if the person is insecure in its movements with the animal. "The animals give them fast and honest feedback," Strasser said.

Doctors and psychologists in the United States have used llamas in therapeutical settings for years, but the practice was only introduced in Germany two years ago, after an association representing German camelidae breeders approached the clinic and said it would donate the animals if its doctors used them to assist in addiction treatment.

"There have been good experiences using llamas to treat patients with epilepsy, hysteria, autism, Down syndrome and addiction," Heiko Müller, a social worker and llama breeder recently told the "Berliner Zeitung" newspaper.

Research is still needed

Despite the dearth of scientific research on the benefits of llamas in the treatment of addiction or mental illness, Strasser and his patients at Lake Constance are true converts.

Strasser said he had no doubt about the animals' effectiveness in treating addiction and that he hopes German scientists will give the subject serious research in order to officially prove what he has discovered anecdotally.

"Henry and Nestor have proven themselves as highly effective treatment agents," he told the newspaper. "They can even help women with severe psychiatric problems."