How animal therapy helps people who have had a brain injury

Animal assisted therapy (AAT) can significantly improve the social behaviour and communication skills of patients suffering from brain injuries, according to new research.

  An article in Horse and Hound explains how researchers at the University of Basel explored the emerging field of AAT. Animals in the project included horses, donkeys, sheep, goats, miniature pigs, cats, chickens, rabbits and guinea pigs.  The study, published in Scientific Reports, aimed to investigate the effects of AAT on social competence in patients with acquired brain injury undergoing neurorehabilitation (all adults). It measured social behaviour as well as the mood, treatment motivation and satisfaction of the patients. The research states: “Integrating animals into therapy sessions for patients with acquired brain injury led to significantly more social behaviour during AAT, with an increase in both verbal and non-verbal communication. “Moreover, patients displayed significantly more positive emotions, were more motivated and rated their satisfaction level higher during AAT.” The piece outlined three positives of AAT as reported below:
  • “Animals can become relevant therapeutic partners for patients, who are often highly motivated to care for the animal. Since animals communicate non-verbally and are non-evaluative, they are especially suitable for patients with acquired brain injury, who often have trouble connecting verbally, struggle with feelings of shame or may be highly alert to social evaluation.”
  • “Animals provide motivation for therapeutic activities. Patients have difficulties with activities of daily life, such as getting dressed, cooking or eating, but are often highly motivated to engage in caring activities, such as preparing food for the animal.”
  • “Animals elicit positive affect and accordingly, patients showed significantly more positive and, respectively, less neutral emotions during AAT compared to conventional therapy sessions. We found considerable differences between patients, indicating that some of them did profit more than others.”
The study said that future research can address certain effects further and said that while this study considered short-term effects further study of long-term effects is important. It concluded that findings “demonstrate that patients with acquired brain injury showed higher social engagement, motivation and satisfaction during AAT sessions in comparison to conventional therapy sessions. Moreover, these effects were seen during AAT with different animal species.”
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