The Importance of Pets to the Disabled

Man's best friend has been portrayed in the literature, movies and television as a loyal companion, lifesaver, a personal care attendant and traditionally as a member of the all American family portrait. The message is clear, dogs are important to humans. However, dogs don't corner the market as pets of choice. In the past ten years this country has definitely "gone to the cats". Cats outnumber dogs 63 million to 54 million now. But the choice of pets is not important as the many benefits pets can provide to individuals with brain injury.

The inclusion into hospital and rehabilitation environments has long considered very therapeutic, but pets continue to be an important part of life long after rehabilitation has ended. In addition to filling lonely hours with companionship, pets can be trained, much like the more familiar seeing eye dogs, to perform tasks and assist persons with disabilities in many different ways pets and the responsibility for their care may enhance cognitive retraining in ways that are more subtle and enjoyable than traditional therapies.  Just as recreational activities can be planned to promote therapeutic goals, so also can the acquisition of pet. Fun activities often stimulate individuals with low motivation in ways that are not often achieved by sitting in front of a television for hours on end.

1. Pets can be very good companions and help people feel more acknowledged and less lonely.

2. Profiting from feedback is a problem area for many with brain injury and often results in loss of friendships and diminished social skills when treated inappropriately, pets respond with immediate feedback in the form of a nip scratch, bark, or quick exit. This may help the offending individual correct or relearn more appropriate behavior without the repeated embarrassment of a
social blunder in public or constant verbal feedback should then generalize into social setting.

3. There's a great deal of pride in ownership and thus, owning and being responsible for a pet can boost self-esteem for those with depleted self-worth. Interest in a pet may redirect some with frontal lobe deficits.

4. Selecting a pet can be fun and can be turned into a cognitive exercise by taking time to do some planning, talk about choice of a pet, costs of food, vets visits for a licenses and immunizations, bedding, collars, leases or other accessories required. This kind of planning can be written out or verbal but should be a serious discussion to ensure that responsibility taken can be managed by this individual. It may be necessary to openly discuss the pros and cons of various choices in a non-confrontational manner.

5. The choice of pets should be fun, not fraught with discord. Even when the individual suggests a sophisticated set up of aquarium with pumps, filters, etc. that may be too complicated to handle independently, or a Saint Bernard for someone with a balance problem who may be pulled over while walking such a large dog, or a Chihuahua for someone with impaired visual perception or more planning problems, it's important to consider all options. When limitations are barriers to independently caring for a pet of choice, talk about strategies that will enable more independence and determine what duties will be monitored and the proper care is always provided.

6. Pets must be cared for otherwise they fail to thrive. This may be a hard lesson, possibly from time to time even cruel for the animal, but, individual's with brain injury must learn or relearn this important fact of life. Naturally a responsible adult should intervene if the pet's health or well being is adversely affected.

7. Almost everyone loves animals and they are "attention getters" and the subject of public interest. This often enhances social skills building for individuals when encountering others in the park, neighborhoods and other places people congregate with pets. Have you ever been able to pass without noticing or striking up a conversation with someone sitting on a park bench with a colorful, exotic bird perched on his or her shoulder? Pets are great conversation pieces.

8. Individuals with severe brain injury and other impairing conditions often have little control over their lives. Owning a pet can provide an opportunity for controlling at least one facet of their lives-they're pets! Pets always have time for sharing with their owners and their loyalty is indisputable.

Pet therapy is well-established routine in many ,nursing homes, and rehabilitation centers. Anecdotal accounts tell of benefits of pets being in the presence of people in all stages of recovery, rehabilitation, even end stage illnesses. The comforting and calming affect of stroking a furry animal often elicits more relaxing facial expression and/or postures in persons even thought to be in minimally responsible states. Non-verbal individuals generally respond with concentrated smiles when pets are introduced into their environment. Most any individual with a disability can take some responsibility for the care of an animal, even if its no more than a daily stroking or play session.

Dogs are more frequently trained to assist individuals with brain injury. Custom styled saddlebags can be placed on the dog, and be used for carrying personal items, wallet, daily journal, and other items needed by those using wheelchairs and/or other assistive devices that increase mobility.

Henry David Thoreau writes, "It often happens that a man is more humanely related to a cat or dog than to any other human being".  Pets are indeed wonderful companions and can frequently impact positively even on those for whom other therapies, exercises, and/or future promise continuing recovery hold little interest.

Revised: Saturday, February 23, 2002 08:42 AM