Owning a pet can have huge benefits for our health and wellbeing. Indeed, for some brain injury survivors having a furry friend to love and care for has completely changed the course of their recovery.
In honour of April being National Pet Month we spoke with one brain injury survivor about the impact her two dogs have had on her life.
In May 2011, dog-lover Caroline Hayward was suddenly taken ill with near-fatal bacterial meningitis, septicaemia and cerebral abscesses.
Doctors did not think Caroline would survive after numerous attempts to bring her out of a three-week-long coma were unsuccessful.
Nevertheless, Caroline defied all expectations and, following a further three weeks in hospital, was able to return home.
But this is where the challenge really began as Caroline was a single-parent to an adopted five-year-old boy.
For nine weeks following her illness Caroline’s son was cared for by Social Services. She had to fight hard to regain her physical capabilities and prove that she was able to care for, not only herself, but for her son.
I felt like my heart had been ripped out being at home without him, but I was barely able to walk and struggling to manage even my own needs.
Thankfully Caroline recovered enough for her son to return to her care. Eight years on, Caroline finds herself caring for, not only a teenage boy, but also two lively dogs, Pippin and Kelta!
I had always been a dog owner but didn’t have one at the time of my illness. My life changed in an instant and I found myself no longer able to work and socially isolated. After six months I felt able to cope with a small dog. So I decided to get Pippin- a Cavachon (a cross between a Bichon Frise and a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel)- for company and to encourage me to go for walks.
The companionship and unconditional love that I got from Pippin was very helpful in my road to recovery. Owning him gave me another sense of purpose and provided me with comfort when my young son was presenting parenting challenges.
My illness left me with weakness and balance problems. Walking Pippin helped to improve this, although I still find myself going ‘splat’ occasionally, even now.
I had to surrender my driving licence which meant walking long distances to take my son to school. I’d take Pippin with me for company on the long walks back.
I had always had big dogs previously and I decided I wanted a bigger dog to take on countryside walks. I did my research and settled on the Vizsla breed. It’s a breed known for their sociable personalities, energetic nature and beautiful auburn colour. Kelta completed the family!
Kelta needs plenty of exercise and I am now out walking in the countryside every day, whatever the weather.
Pippin and Kelta have helped me feel less isolated. Kelta, especially, wants to be sat by me, or on me, nearly all the time. He’s got lovely velvety floppy ears and coat that I find very therapeutic and calming to stroke.
Walking the dogs also gives me the opportunity to talk to other dog walkers and the British weather always gives us a topic of conversation, come rain or shine!
I feel like both dogs, particularly Kelta, understand what I’m going through and can recognise when I’m stressed or upset. When this happens Kelta tries to love and comfort me, lying on me as a weighted blanket and getting me to stroke him.
Even though they are very differently sized dogs they get on really well and play fight like siblings. Kelta seems to know that he is much bigger than Pippin and when they play tug games you can see him adjusting his strength so they have a fairly matched game. They make me laugh which is definitely mood lifting!
Firstly, it’s very important to make sure you are able to adequately meet the needs of a dog. If you are, then I would strongly encourage anyone to get one. It has certainly helped my recovery and adjustment to life with an acquired brain injury.
Being so close to death has made me realise the vulnerability of life. Life with an ABI is not easy and timely access to brain injury services is essential to maximise rehabilitation and recovery.
“We’ve had our dog for five months and she has so helped with my anxiety. I walk down by the river most days with her and it has really helped me with my recovery." Marco Gambi
“My animals were 100% the reason I was able to make virtually a full recovery from my subarachnoid hemorrhage. Their unconditional love was my biggest comfort. I am grateful for them every day.” Zoë Williams
“My dogs kept me company when I didn’t have the confidence to go out and keep me walking now that I do.” Kim Warren
“My horse and dogs are the reason I get out of bed in the morning. They are constant company, demonstrate a perpetual ‘glass half full’ approach to life, and never get bored of the “pick things up after mum has dropped them” game however clumsy I am!" Heather Sweet