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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
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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