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Summer 2011

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Pets Provide Purpose

The Benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy for Stroke Survivors

By Donna Robacker, OTR; Virginia Hyatt and Natasha Woolery

Personal pets are often an integral part of people’s lives. Pet owners invest themselves and their resources to care for pets. Can pets or animal assisted therapy (AAT) help with recovery from stroke? Yes, especially if the stroke survivor’s current or past life includes caring for a pet.

Since 1990 HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital of Fort Worth, Texas and Paws Across Texas, Inc. (PAT), a non-profit organization, have partnered to bring AAT to stroke survivors to help with their recovery. Dogs are used for the PAT program because they are common pets that are adaptable to diverse patient situations and needs.

Visual Deficit Recovery

AAT can help with visual problems that might occur because of a stroke. Often a stroke survivor has difficulty visually paying attention to the left side of the body. So, having a dog sit or stand next to the left side of the body might motivate a stroke survivor to more easily work with the left side. Activities such as petting the dog, brushing the dog, reaching toward the dog or throwing a ball for the dog can be adapted for the stroke survivor to work on areas of visual deficit, such as when the survivor is neglecting one side of the body.


Everyone is motivated by different things. When a dog lover enters our stroke program we recognize that a dog might motivate that person and use that idea to assist with the stroke survivor’s recovery. The emotional response from interacting with the dog helps the patient’s focus on goals. A stroke survivor with limited sitting balance may be more motivated to maintain a seated position at the edge of the bed while holding the dog. He or she might focus more easily on the instructions of the occupational therapist, physical therapist or speech language pathologist if a dog is used in the process. A stroke survivor’s depression may be replaced with a more optimistic attitude when interacting with a PAT dog.

A stroke survivor may own a dog and have a primary goal of returning to the role of caring for that dog. This can be used in therapy to create a patient-centered treatment plan that might work toward recovery of hemiparesis (muscle weakness on only one side of the body) in the arm and leg, improve balance and work toward recovery of gait.

AAT can allow stroke survivors to experience increased motivation, decreased depression, improved sensation, increased communication, decreased severity of hemiparesis and improved mobility and gait. The goal of AAT is to help stroke survivors transition home, move to the next level of recovery or move to outpatient therapy or into a day hospital therapy program. Most importantly we hope to help them resume roles they may have lost as a result of stroke. 

Donna Robacker, OTR, MOT. Virginia Hyatt is Paws Across Texas founder and coordinator of the AAT program serving various hospital settings in Texas. Natasha Woolery, PT, Director of Therapy Operations, HealthSouth Rehabilitation of Fort Worth, Texas.

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National Stroke Association’s mission is to reduce the incidence and impact of stroke by developing compelling education and programs focused on prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and support for all impacted by stroke.

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