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The role of animal therapy in brain injury services

By Jocelyn Plante-Bekenn, Senior Occupational Therapist at Priory Burton Park, and Karl Jacks.

Priory Burton Park, Northampton, provide specialist care for adults with an acquired brain injury (ABI) or a progressive neurological condition (PNC).

Across our services, we have diverse patient groups, with many individuals frequently displaying challenging behaviours. As a service, we are continually developing ways of engaging with patients and supporting them to have meaningful experiences that contribute to their wellbeing.

The occupational therapy (OT) teams at Burton Park have recently welcomed two new recruits, Alfie, the therapy pony and Isla, the therapy donkey, to the team. Alfie and Isla join Clover the pet assisted therapy (PAT) dog who also visits Grafton Manor.

We found that Alfie and Isla had an immediate and significant positive impact on everyone, and provided a meaningful form of engagement that was accessible to all and created a positive atmosphere across the wards.

We have found that the introduction of Alfie and Isla has had a particularly profound impact on patients who are at risk of social isolation or who have limited communication and interpersonal skills. To be able to offer this experience within their own environment without the added stress of an off-site visit and potentially overstimulating atmosphere is invaluable.

The use of touch to convey empathy, support and reassurance can be a very powerful tool that healthcare professionals may utilise in the right situation. Sometimes however, a different tactile approach can have a surprisingly significant impact on a person in care.

There is an extensive evidence-base that supports the use of animals within a therapeutic setting with a variety of patient groups, including those with dementia or a learning disability. Some of the immediate benefits include:

  • Supporting patients to stabilise their emotions
  • Improve their communication
  • Self-regulation
  • Socialisation skills

Although there is little evidence which supports and explains the lasting impacts following an animal therapy visit, as a service, we often use cameras to document the positive experience for our patients. We are then able to use this footage to remind our patients of their enjoyable experience during an unsettled or agitated period.

We are looking to increase our patients’ access to this valuable resource through other kinds of experiences which we can bring to our patient groups, including regular PAT dogs and other ‘animal encounter’ experiences. We have been able to clearly see the benefits that this experience has offered so far, and we are keen to see further positive impacts this can have. 

Enquiries and Referrals

For further information on Priory services offered to the NHS, including rehabilitation-focused treatment programmes for those living with a brain injury, please call our dedicated 24/7 customer service centre on 0330 056 6022. Alternatively, click here to submit an enquiry form

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