Stroking GUINEA PIGS helps people recover from catastrophic brain injuries

People who suffer catastrophic brain injuries may recover their social skills quicker by stroking guinea pigs, research suggests.

Traumatic brain injuries often affect a patient’s ability to feel empathy and express their emotions.

But a study found allowing patients to stroke ‘cute animals’ – such as micro pigs, rabbits and donkeys – during rehabilitation sessions nearly doubled how chatty and positive they were.

Researchers believe those who struggle to communicate, battle shame or feel judged by others benefit from our furry friends’ ‘non-evaluative’ natures.

People who suffer traumatic brain injuries may recover quicker by stroking guinea pigs (stock)

The research was carried out by the University of Basel in Switzerland and led by psychotherapist  Dr Karin Hediger.

‘The results suggest that animal-assisted therapy [AAT] can have a positive effect on the social behaviour of patients with brain injuries,’ she said.

‘Animals can be relevant therapeutic partners because they motivate patients to care for the animal.

‘Secondly, animals provide a stimulus for patients to actively engage in the therapeutic activities.’

Traumatic brain injuries affect between 50 and 60million people worldwide every year, the researchers wrote in the journal Scientific Reports.

This often leads to ‘difficulties in social competence’, which may include chatting less or asking more direct questions. 

Olympic gold medalist and rowing champion James Cracknell called himself ‘James Mark Two’ after a cycling accident in July 2010 left him with an altered personality. 

Cracknell claims his severe head injuries took him from being ‘surfer-ish’ and ‘laid-back’ to aggressive and irritable.  

AAT is increasingly being used to address ‘impaired social competence’ in those who have suffered a brain injury.

However, until now, its effectiveness in these patients specifically had not been studied. 

To put this to the test, the researchers recorded the behaviours of 19 patients who took part in both AAT and conventional therapy at REHAB Basel, the clinic for neuro-rehabilitation and paraplegiology.

Each patient underwent 12 AAT and 12 conventional therapy sessions over six weeks. 


Traumatic brain injuries (TBI) are thought to impair a sufferer’s imagination if they affect the part of the vital organ that controls creativity.

Recent research suggests both the left and the right side of the brain play a role in imagination.

Although unclear exactly how this occurs, neruological damage of any sort – whether it be Alzheimer’s, TBI, multiple sclerosis or brain tumours – is thought to affect creativity by impacting a person’s ability to interpret things happening around them.

A loss of imagination may occur if the occipital lobe, which sits in the lower, back part of the brain, gets damaged.

Studies have also found those who endure TBI often lose the ability to dream or imagine experiences from their past, such as the appearance of loved ones or their childhood home. 

The animals were selected by the individual patient and their therapist, with the options being horses, donkeys, sheep, goats, miniature pigs, cats, chickens, rabbits or guinea pigs.

During each AAT session, the patients were asked to complete a task that involved the animal. 

For example, feeding a guinea pig vegetables, walking through a course with a mini pig or cleaning a rabbit’s cage with the bunny present.

This was compared against cutting vegetables but not feeding them to an animal, walking through a course with a ball and cleaning furniture.  

Each session was videotaped, with the researchers evaluating how the patients communicated. 

The patients also completed a questionnaire after each session, which asked about their mood and motivation to attend therapy. 

Results revealed that when the patients took part in AAT, their ‘verbal communication was significantly higher’ and their ‘reactive verbal communication was decreased’.

And the ‘duration of the displayed positive emotions’ was almost twice as long in the AAT sessions. 

The AAT patients were also more likely to make eye contact with their therapist.    

When the AAT was over, the patients rated themselves as feeling more motivated and satisfied, which their therapists agreed with.

‘Motivation and mood are both key for increased engagement and positive outcomes in rehabilitation,’ the authors wrote.   

The animals had no impact on the patients’ negative emotions – neither making them better nor worse, but improved ‘neutral’ ones. 

The researchers hope their study will lead to AAT being used more among patients with head injuries. 

They did notice, however, the patients differed in how well they reacted to AAT. Therefore future research should investigate those who may benefit most, the scientists add.