Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is an acute event that can lead to a cascade of physical and psychological symptoms. Such symptoms can have long-lasting consequences that require assistance and lifestyle modifications to accomplish normal daily tasks. Recent treatment advances have placed emphasis on alternative therapies to combat the chronic symptoms associated with TBI. At the forefront of such treatments is the use of animal-assisted therapy, which utilizes the human-animal interaction to manage symptoms of TBI.
The effects of the human-animal interaction are well documented. Animals are thought to aid in social attention and social interactions, improve mood and behavior, and reduce stress. Research supports the idea that these physiological and psychosocial effects are due in part to reductions in the levels of hormones related to stress and increases in the levels of hormones that promote feelings of happiness and love. These changes are brought about by alterations of the endocrine system, the means by which the body releases hormones into the blood to regulate all body functions.
Studies of the biological effects of interactions of humans with friendly animals indicate that such interactions reduce the levels of hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine—these hormones typically increase in times of stress. These effects are seen during interactions with one’s own pet, as well as with unfamiliar friendly animals. Human-animal interaction also causes reduction in heart rate, blood pressure, and general feelings of anxiety and pain, and may promote overall health through, for instance, reductions in cholesterol levels. Interestingly, many symptoms commonly associated with TBI are the same as those that are targeted by human-animal interactions: TBI patients commonly experience psychological symptoms such as depression, anxiety, aggression, and inappropriate social behavior. Animal-assisted therapy can help combat these chronic symptoms.
People who have experienced TBI can find it challenging to connect with friends and family. Working with animals can help improve interpersonal skills, reduce social anxiety, promote positive social behaviors, and increase empathy. Interactions with animals can help people with TBI re-learn social skills that they may have lost, which can help prepare them for human social interaction. In addition, animals can be a social cue that promote conversation, helping reduce stress and anxiety associated with social interactions. Family relationships can also benefit from animal assisted therapy. By reducing feelings of aggression, anxiety, and depression (which commonly accompany TBI), people with TBI can gain the ability to strengthen familial relationships that have been under strain.
TBI can also have a great impact on learning, memory, and cognition. Though the effects are less well described, some research suggests that human-animal interactions can help improve such deficits. One theory, supported by studies that show that children learn tasks in less time when animals are present, is that animals increase motivation to learn and reduce the stress and anxiety associated with the challenges of learning new tasks. The challenges of re-learning skills that were lost as a result of injury, and of learning new methods to cope with memory loss, may be alleviated with animal-assisted therapy.
Over the past several decades, canine assistance has been used with great success for physical disabilities such as visual or hearing impairments and mobility challenges. TBI can initiate a number of physical challenges, including reduced strength and balance, increased dizziness, and predisposition to vertigo. Service dogs can offer stability for their human companion, and can carry out simple tasks such as fetching items, turning lights on and off, opening doors, and even pulling a wheelchair for patients with mobility deficits. These tasks can increase independence and make a large impact in the quality of life of an individual suffering from TBI.
TBI has a myriad of long-term consequences that require innovative interventions and treatment methods. Animal-assisted therapy makes use of the long-standing relationship between humans and animals to promote health and wellness in these patients.
Beetz, Andrea et al. “Psychosocial and Psychophysiological Effects of Human-Animal Interactions: The Possible Role of Oxytocin.” Frontiers in Psychology 3 (2012): 234. PMC. Web. 13 June 2017.
Shubert, J. (2012). Dogs and human health/mental health: From the pleasure of their company to the benefits of their assistance. US Army Medical Department Journal, 21-30.