These therapies can also increase brain-injured patients’ emotional involvement in therapy, according to the trial by psychologists from the University of Basel in Switzerland.

Behavioural problems that can follow brain injury – such as those caused by impaired emotional expression – can lead to communication problems that make social situations difficult to navigate.

But animal-assisted therapy is increasingly being used in rehabilitation to help tackle such issues.

And the results of the first systematic study of this type of therapy in relation to acquired brain injury suggests this approach is well founded.

The study is a collaboration between REHAB Basel, the clinic for neurorehabilitation and paraplegiology, the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute and the University of Basel.

Nineteen adult participants underwent animal-assisted therapy, as well as conventional therapy, sessions.

The patients’ social behaviours were recorded and evaluated during a total of 200 animal-assisted and conventional therapy sessions. The study also documented patient mood and satisfaction and their treatment motivation – an important factor 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.

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

The findings of the study were published in the journal Scientific Reports.