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How pets can help with brain rehabilitation

Constant Therapy | Traumatic brain injury, Stroke

Survivors of trauma, illness or injury often find comfort and support from companion animals during the process of brain rehabilitation. From the daily comfort of your own dog or cat to specially trained animals for therapy and assistance, dogs, cats, horses, birds and other animals can provide confidence, relieve loneliness, provide motivation or assistance with walking and other movement, and generally give a sense of purpose to life.

Studies have shown that pet ownership has psychological benefits

Interacting with a pet has been linked to lower blood pressure, increased exercise, and stronger immune systems. Pet owners tend to be less lonely, have higher self-esteem, be more extroverted, and harbor less fear about getting close to other people.

For those in recovery from brain injury or stroke, an animal can boost recovery efforts. A pet can provide:

  • Relief from loneliness. Having a stroke or brain injury can be an isolating experience. If the survivor also has aphasia, it may feel difficult to communicate with other people. An animal provides comfort, company and stimulation, as well as a pathway to a less isolated life.
  • Lessening negative emotions. Brain rehabilitation is difficult and can take an emotional toll on survivors. Pets offer acceptance, love, and motivation. Even just petting an animal can provide a calming and comforting effect that may help with mental health.
  • Motivation to move. A pet can provide an incentive for survivors to work rebuilding walking ability. Clinicians report seeing patients walk further with a dog on a daily walk, than without, because they are distracted by the dog and aren’t aware how far they are walking. In addition, activities like brushing a pet, feeding them treats, and putting a leash on and off can act as exercises to help increase motor recovery.
  • Help with aphasia. Pets may encourage individuals with aphasia to try to communicate. When out and about with a dog, for example, a pet is a great conversation starter, giving survivors more opportunities to practice talking with strangers.
  • A sense of purpose. Pets may provide the comfort, confidence, and motivation survivors need to keep up rehabilitation.

Not just for emotional support

As described above, household pets can provide significant support during brain rehabilitation, but in addition, there are specially trained service and therapy animals who may provide additional assistance, depending on the needs of the survivor. Service animals may fall into the following categories:

  • Service animals. Usually dogs (or even miniature horses) who are trained to help people with disabilities such as visual impairments, mental illnesses, seizure disorders, or diabetes. In a person recovering from a brain injury, a service animal may provide assistance with balance or walking. Service dogs often live with their humans, and may enter environments otherwise closed to animals, such as restaurants, by right of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • Therapy animals. Also known as AAT – animal-assisted therapy – these animals (usually dogs) are trained to provide comfort and affection to people in schools, hospitals, and clinics. One therapy animal may serve many people in a therapeutic setting.
  • Emotional support animals. Known as ESAs, these trained animals may provide therapy through companionship. You can think of ESAs as pets who have the right to enter some environments otherwise denied to animals, such as airplanes, upon following proper procedures.

Resources for learning more about about service animals, ESAs and AAT

People recovering from brain injury may benefit from each of these animal-human relationships. If you and or your loved one are interested in learning more about how animals can help brain rehabilitation, check out the resources below:

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  1. Tinsley C Preston

    Yes, we have two dogs and they are a big help with my husband’s recovery from a stroke: daily walks, communication, responsibility to feed them,and unconditional love!

    • Carla Gates

      Thank you for your comment! So great to hear about the impact your dogs are having.

  2. linda fodrini-johnson

    Isolation is a negative to the health of seniors – those with pets do much better when living alone. In my area we have a therapeutic program for those in the early stages of a dementia and horses – a wonderful bonding and purpose develops for those with dementia.

    • Cyvia Star

      Thank you for your comment.

  3. Steven Farley

    I had a stroke in my mid-50s in Oct. 2021. It has been the hardest thing I have ever gone through, including military deployment, war and a simultaneous divorce; this tops it all. We took in a year-old large breed but he was a rolling trainwreck. But it uncovered how badly I could use a therapy dog. Now we’re trying to find the perfect breed to get. My wife will only accept a puppy.

    • Constant Therapy

      Hello Steven, thank you so much for sharing this. It sounds like you have faced many challenges over the past two years. We commend you for getting through it and for recognizing when you needed support. If you’re interested, here is another BrainWire article with skills for managing mental health post-stroke. Feel free to send any other questions (or puppy photos!) to All the best!


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