Pets as therapy after a brain injury
Man's best friend, the dog, has been
portrayed in our culture as a loyal companion.
The inclusion of pets into hospital and rehabilitation
environments has long been considered very therapeutic, and pets
continue to be an important part of life long after rehabilitation
has ended. This is true for people with a brain injury, and the
A pet can offer acceptance, love and motivation through
the most difficult parts of rehabilitation and recovery after a
brain injury. Pets are very good companions and help
people feel less lonely. They also respond with feedback which can
negate inappropriate behaviours, and interest in a pet may redirect
egocentricity that may arise from frontal lobe
Apart from companionship, pets can be trained,
much like the more familiar Seeing Eye dogs, to perform tasks and
assist persons with disabilities in many different ways.
The responsibility for pet care can enhance cognitive
functioning in ways that are more subtle and enjoyable than
traditional therapies. Fun activities often stimulate individuals
with low motivation in ways that are not often achieved by sitting
in front of the tv set for hours on end.
Selecting a pet can be turned into a cognitive exercise of
planning. The choice of a pet should be fun, not fraught with
discord. It's important to consider all options e.g. a
sophisticated set up of aquariums with pumps and filters may be too
complex for some.
Pets must be cared for, otherwise they fail to thrive. The needs
of the pet can be motivating for a person who may otherwise resist
or refuse to actively engage with others. Naturally a responsible
adult should intervene if the pet's health or well-being is
adversely affected. When limitations arising from the Acquired
Brain Injury are barriers to independently caring for a pet of
choice, talk with the individual about strategies that will enable
more independence and determine what duties will be managed by whom
so responsibilities can be monitored.
Almost everyone loves animals. This often enhances social skills
building for individuals when encountering others in the park,
neighbourhoods and other places people congregate with pets. Have
you ever been able to pass without noticing or striking up a
conversation with someone sitting on a park bench with a colourful,
exotic bird perched on his or her shoulder? Pets are great
Individuals with severe brain injury and other impairing
conditions often have little control over their lives. Owning a pet
can provide an opportunity for controlling at least one facet of
their lives - their pet! Pets always have time for sharing with
their owners and their loyalty is indisputable.
Pet therapy is a well-established routine in many hospitals,
nursing homes and rehabilitation centres. The presence of pets
appears to be a benefit in all stages of recovery, rehabilitation
and even end-stage illnesses.
The comforting and calming affect of stroking a furry animal
often elicits more relaxing facial expressions and/or postures in
persons even thought to be in minimally-responsive states.
Nonverbal individuals generally respond with contented smiles when
pets are introduced into their environment. Almost all individuals
with disabilities can take some responsibility for the care of an
animal, even if it's no more than a daily stroking or play
Dogs are frequently trained to assist individuals with brain
injury, particularly those with mobility impairments. Custom-styled
saddlebags can be placed on the dog and used for carrying personal
items, wallet, daily journal and other items needed by those using
wheelchairs and/or other assisting devices that increase
Henry David Thoreau writes, "It often happens that a man is more
humanely related to a cat or dog than to any human being." Pets are
indeed wonderful companions and can frequently impact positively
even on those for whom other therapies, exercises and/or future
promise for continuing recovery hold little interest.
References and further information
Many thanks to the Brain Injury Association of America for their
kind permission to adapt this article. Their website can be viewed