Pets provide a voice for people with acquired language difficulties

By Annabel Mansfield

Speech pathologist Professor Maria Kambanaros and UniSA student researcher Charlotte Mitchard explain how pets help people with acquired language difficulties such as aphasia.

It’s long been recognised that pets can make people happier. Now, new research from UniSA shows that pet ownership and pet care can also support communication and wellbeing, especially for people with acquired language difficulties such as aphasia.

Partnering with Aphasia SA, researchers found that pets have a unique ability to improve communication among people with aphasia, a language difficulty after brain injury that can affect a person’s ability to talk, listen, and connect.

More than 140,000 Australians live with aphasia.

The study showed that pets can deliver notable improvements in people’s emotional and social wellbeing, from boosting their confidence in social situations, to providing them with company when they felt low.

UniSA student researcher Charlotte Mitchard says that while every person with aphasia presents differently, the condition often affects a person’s ability to speak, read, write and understand others.

“Aphasia can have a big impact on a person’s life, affecting how they connect and interact with others, as well as how they participate in the community,” Mitchard says.

“People with affected communication skills can feel quite isolated and alone. But a pet – whether it’s a dog, a cat, or even a fish – can give them greater purpose and companionship, which is especially valuable for people who feel isolated because of their condition.

“Pets are also a non-judgemental communication partner, offering friendship without expectations. In fact, one of the most common phrases we heard was ‘my pet doesn’t care if I can’t talk properly, they love me anyway’.”

Senior researcher and speech pathologist Professor Maria Kambanaros says the study presents a leaping point for other pet and health research in speech pathology.

“The next phase of our study will examine how pet ownership can help people who are caring for those with aphasia,” Prof Kambanaros says.

“Beyond that, we’re also exploring the impact of pet ownership on the wellbeing of people with different acquired neurological disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease.

“We know pets have a positive impact on our lives. By exploring how speech pathologists can support this in therapy, we can promote a far better quality of life.”