Equine therapy can help brain injury patients, study finds

Animal assisted therapy (AAT), including the use of equines, can significantly improve the social behaviour and communication skills of patients suffering from brain injuries, a study has found.

Researchers at the University of Basel aimed to explore the emerging field of AAT and investigate whether it could be used to address impaired social competence.

Some 50m to 60m people suffer traumatic brain injuries each year, making effective therapies a much-needed tool for rehabilitation.

Patients who have suffered brain injuries typically struggle with social communication skills, meaning they involve conversational partners less often, need more direct questions and suffer from reduced emotional empathy and impaired emotional expression. They are also prone to depression, where social isolation can be a contributing factor.

The study, led by Karin Hediger and published in Scientific Reports, was the first systematic attempt to assess the effectiveness of AAT as a therapy method for brain injury.

It looked at 19 patients, who received animal therapy at REHAB Basel alongside conventional treatment.

The animals involved in the project were horses, donkeys, sheep, goats, miniature pigs, cats, chickens, rabbits and guinea pigs. The patients’ social behaviour was evaluated as they interacted with them over 12 30-minute sessions, also receiving 12 30-minute control sessions in the same six-week period.

As well as being observed, patients also filled out questionnaires to gather information about their mood after each session.

Researchers found that integrating animals into therapy led to significantly more social behaviour, with an increase in both verbal and non-verbal communication. Patients also displayed significantly more positive emotions, were more motivated and rated their satisfaction at higher levels during AAT.

“Our findings are in line with previous reports in different clinical populations and an earlier review on AAT in neurorehabilitation, which documents improvements in social functioning and interaction in patients suffering from cerebral palsy, pervasive developmental disorders, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, stroke, and mental disorders,” the report’s authors said.

The benefits of animal therapies are attributed to several factors, one of which is how highly motivated patients are to care for the animal. The effect is seen particularly strongly in subjects that are hard to reach through standard therapies, either because of issues with social interaction or problems with cognitive function and verbal communication.

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“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,” the study noted.

Animals are also thought to help motivate patients to perform tasks they usually struggle with.

“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,” it added.

The study also found animals contributed strongly to positive mood, but observed that there could be large differences between the reactions of patients and that some may be more suited to AAT than others.

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