Animal-assisted therapy helps brain injury patients

The results of a new study have demonstrated that animal-assisted therapy can foster social competence in patients with brain injuries and increase their emotional involvement during therapy.


After a severe traumatic brain injury, patients often exhibit 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 in order to improve these deficits in patients’ social competence. Integrating animals into therapy can, for example, stimulate patient engagement and motivation.

Study overview

Researchers have now 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. The patients’ social behavior were recorded and evaluated during over 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 results showed that in the presence of an animal — which included guinea pigs, miniature pigs, rabbits and sheep — patients exhibited more active social engagement 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 congruent with the assessments of the therapists.


Journal Reference:  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; 9 (1).  DOI: 10.1038/s41598-019-42280-0


study overview


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