Valuable role of animals in therapy for those with brain injuries highlighted

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Animal-assisted therapy can foster social competence in patients with brain injuries and increase their emotional involvement during therapy, researchers report.

After a severe traumatic brain injury, patients often show problems in their social behavior.

For instance, they may suffer from reduced emotional empathy and show impaired emotional expression, all contributing to communicative problems in social interactions.

Animal-assisted therapy is increasingly being used in rehabilitation to improve these deficits.

Integrating animals into therapy can, for example, stimulate patient engagement and motivation.

Researchers from the Faculty of Psychology at Switzerland’s University of Basel have undertaken the first systematic study on in-patients with acquired brain injury to assess the effectiveness of this therapy method.

The study involved conducting animal-assisted therapy sessions for 19 adult participants alongside conventional therapy sessions.

Beforehand, therapists and patients chose a suitable animal for their animal-assisted therapy sessions. The animals involved in the project were horses, donkeys, sheep, goats, miniature pigs, cats, chickens, rabbits and guinea pigs.

All animals were housed in the therapy-animal facility at REHAB Basel, which was a collaborator in the study.

The patients’ social behavior were recorded and evaluated during more than 200 animal-assisted and conventional therapy sessions. The study also documented patient mood and satisfaction and their treatment motivation – an important criterion in therapeutic success.

The presence of animals during therapy sessions has a positive effect on the social behavior of patients who suffer from acquired brain injuries.
The presence of animals during therapy sessions has a positive effect on the social behavior of patients who suffer from acquired brain injuries. © REHAB Basel

The results of the clinical trial, reported in the journal Scientific Reports, showed patients exhibited more active social engagement during the animal sessions than during the conventional therapy sessions.

They expressed nearly twice as many positive emotions and communicated more frequently both verbally and non-verbally.

The animal-assisted therapy had no effect on negative emotions, such as rage or anger.

If an animal was present during the therapy session, patients considered themselves more satisfied and their motivation to actively participate in the therapy higher. This was in line with the assessments of the therapists.

“The results suggest that animal-assisted therapy can have a positive effect on the social behavior of patients with brain injuries,” the study’s principal investigator, Dr Karin Hediger, said.

“Animals can be relevant therapeutic partners, because they motivate patients to care for the animal.

“Secondly, animals provide a stimulus for patients to actively engage in the therapeutic activities.”

Thus, animal-assisted therapy may be a promising supplement to conventional neurorehabilitation, says the psychologist.

The study was carried out by the university researchers in collaboration with REHAB Basel, the clinic for neurorehabilitation and paraplegiology, and the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute.

Karin Hediger, Stefan Thommen, Cora Wagner, Jens Gaab, Margret Hund-Georgiadis
Effects of animal-assisted therapy on social behaviour in patients with acquired brain injury: a randomised controlled trial
Scientific Reports (2019), doi: 10.1038/s41598-019-42280-0

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here.

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