The role of animals in stroke recovery

dog and cat laying in the grass

Pet owners love to tell people about how their pet improves their mental health. But does pet ownership have real health benefits? Can it help with stroke recovery?

We are a nation of pet owners. A 2022 survey by PDSA found that over 50% of UK adults own a pet. Just over half of those (27%) have a dog and just under half (24%) have a cat.

But do all these pets actually improve our well-being?

At least one of forum users seems to think so:

"I find just stroking Missy and hearing her purring calms me. She has a little character now too so I do love her."

Loshy, stroke survivor

But what does the science say?

Health benefits of pet ownership

The National Institute of Health in the USA reports that interacting with animals has an impact on our mental and physical health.

Mental health

Spending even 10 minutes with a dog can increase the levels of oxytocin in your blood and decrease the levels of cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone related to feelings of stress. Oxytocin is a hormone that can help us with social bonding.

A 2021 survey conducted by the PDSA found that 95% of pet owners say that just having a pet makes them happy. And 87% went so far as to say that having a pet was good for their mental health.

Battersea Dogs & Cats Homes has published similar results on how having a pet can help tackle loneliness.

Blue Cross also reports that pets are a good way for people to combat loneliness. Although loneliness isn't considered a mental health issue on its own, it is strongly linked with poor mental health.

As you can see, there is some strong evidence that pets can be good for your mental health. But what about your physical health?

Physical health

Regularly taking a dog out for a walk is of course a great way to get exercise. There is even research to suggest that dog owners walk an additional 22 minutes per day than people who don't have dogs.

But that's not the only way having pets can benefit someone's physical health.

There also appear to be positives to pet ownership amount people with cardiovascular diseases. Having a pet in your life appears to lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of hypertension.

But the true relationship is not fully understood. There are many factors that are linked with better health, such as a higher income, that will also impact whether or not you choose to have a pet.

Health risks of pet ownership

As with anything, there are potential risks associated with pet ownership.

For some people, the need to regularly walk a dog or play with a cat can be too much. There are charities you can turn to if the day-to-day care of a pet has become too much after a stroke.

Other people may be at higher risk of contracting a disease from a pet or other animal. But there are things you can do to stay healthy around pets.

Formal animal-assisted therapy

In addition to the health benefits of owning a pet, there are certain types of animal-assisted therapies shown to benefit stroke recovery.

These therapies are done with a trained animal and a licensed therapist. Some of these sessions use formal recovery exercises like brushing and taking a dog's lead on and off. Others use dog walking as a motivational tool to encourage someone to walk further than they normally would.

There is even some evidence to suggest that working with animals can help people with aphasia.

The benefits of animal-assisted therapy are so well documented, some NHS hospitals are actively recruiting for therapy dogs to come into stroke recovery wards.

There are also, of course, thousands of people who benefit from trained assistance dogs.

Some help someone who is disabled maintain their independence. Others detect and alert their owners to life threatening symptoms such as seizures or issues with their blood sugar. Still more provide support to people with mental illnesses.

These animals can do amazing things and are a lifeline to the people they support.

Assistance dogs and the Stroke Association

Woman in a wheelchair with a dog.

Last year, Canine Partners ran a pilot with the Stroke Association. Canine Partners is a charity that helps people with physical disabilities find an assistance dog.

The people referred to the pilot had the opportunity to meet with trained assistance dogs over the course of 12 weeks. They were able to work with these dogs in short, personal settings on specific goals.

Some people wanted to work with the dogs as a way to improve their communication skills. Others worked with the dogs to help them feel confident walking their own dog at home. Each person got to set their own goals for these sessions.

It is no surprise that the sessions were a success. All 9 participants said meeting regularly with the assistance dogs had had a positive impact and 50% felt they fully met their goal. 40% said that they partially met their goals. They said that they felt they would have fully met their goals if they had a chance to work with the dogs for longer.

“What I have learnt I will take away with me and continue to learn more.”

Therapy animals and assistance dogs in particular can make a real difference to people's recovery. If you are interested in working with therapy animals or having an assistance dog, speak with your therapy team. They will be able to advise you further.

Share your stories

We'd love to hear from you about how your pet has influenced your stroke recovery.

Please feel free to add your own stories here.

Two photos side by side, one of a small pug-like dog wearing a Stroke Association bandana. The other is a black and white cat playing with a piece of string.

In the meantime, we'll leave you with some introductions to the pets from the team behind My Stroke Guide (pictured on the right):

Beavis the jug (Pug x Jack Russell Terrier), who follows Alex around like a shadow, hunting for any scrap of food she may have dropped.

Marvel the moggie, who believes Ashley exists only to provide her with treats and play games with her.

If your pet would like to show support for the Stroke Association, you can buy a bandana for them from our shop.

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