Over 900 colleges across the country have programs where students can interact with trained therapy animals, but only the University of Minnesota provides this weekly – and is one of very few universities that includes chickens.

Tilly the therapy chicken is a member of PAWS at the University of Minnesota. (Photo by Laura Beier)

This is according to Tanya Bailey, animal-assisted interactions coordinator at Boynton Health and the creator of the Pet Away Worry and Stress (PAWS) program at the U. Five years ago, Bailey noticed that other college stress-relief programs were only offered during midterms and finals, and wanted to provide services weekly for U of M students. “Stress is a year-round thing,” she said.

In addition to dogs, rabbits, cats, guinea pigs and miniature horses, Bailey’s chickens are part of the diverse collection of trained and approved animals at PAWS. Named Tilly, Layla and Henley, they are all Silkie chickens – a more ornamental and calmer breed than farm chickens.

Attila the Hen, known as “Tilly,” is four years old and was in the program with Woodstock, the original PAWS therapy chicken who passed away at 10-years-old in 2016. Layla and Henley are both a year old. Bailey keeps all three in a coop at her home.

“I think it speaks to diversity,” said Bailey of the chickens and other seemingly rare animals she has at PAWS. “Not everyone likes dogs.” There are also less allergen issues with the chickens than with the other animals, said Bailey.

The point of the program is not just to de-stress but to connect with the surrounding community, Bailey explained. The chickens add an element of interest and may appeal to those who might not come otherwise. “There’s a novelty and uniqueness to having a chicken in a program like this,” she said.

Though not generally considered as a typical therapy animal, Silkie chickens are a recognized species for therapy animal programs. All animals go through a veterinary screening process and must be approved before qualifying for therapeutic purposes.

PAWS takes place four times a week – Monday through Thursday – on both the St. Paul and East Bank campuses at the U of M.