The inclusion of pets into hospitals and rehabilitation environments is now widely considered therapeutic; offering acceptance, love and motivation through the most difficult parts of rehabilitation and recovery after a brain injury.
But their impact doesn’t cease when the rehab process ends. Pets are excellent companions and have been shown to reduce feelings of loneliness, which can be useful after brain injury if friendships have not been maintained. Indeed, because almost everyone loves animals, this can increase social skills building for individuals when encountering others out and about. Most people, whatever their disability, can take some responsibility for the care of an animal, even if it is no more than a daily stroking or play session.
From a practical perspective, dogs are frequently trained to assist individuals with brain injury, particularly those with mobility impairments. Customised 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 mobility. Pets can also respond with feedback, which can help reduce inappropriate behaviours, and interest in a pet may redirect egocentricity that often accompanies brain injury.
Selecting a pet can be turned into a cognitive exercise of planning – considering their needs and yours. For example, a sophisticated set up of aquariums with pumps and filters may be too complex for some. 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, and pets always have time for sharing with their owners.
Importantly, the responsibility for pet care can enhance cognitive functioning in ways that are subtler and more enjoyable than traditional therapies. Fun activities often stimulate individuals with low motivation in ways that are not often achieved by, for example, sitting in front of the television for hours. 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.
Pets are 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. Naturally, a responsible adult should intervene if the pet’s health or wellbeing is adversely affected. When limitations arising from the 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.