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Pets as therapy after a brain injury

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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 wider community.


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 injuries.


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 conversation pieces.


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 session.


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 mobility.


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 at



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