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Pets and Dementia

by James Smith
Smiling Dog

Therapy animals have long been used to assist blind and disabled individuals. Now, dogs and pets of all kinds have become increasingly common in the treatment of individuals with dementia related disorders. 

“Animals are such agreeable friends - they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms.”

-George Eliot

Therapy animals have long been used to assist blind and disabled individuals. Now, dogs and pets of all kinds have become increasingly common in the treatment of individuals with dementia related disorders.

The kind of obstacles faced by those with dementia include apathy, irritability, restlessness, depression, difficulty engaging in social activities, and risk of loneliness and isolation. Due to the anxiety that social situations can cause in dementia patients, they often avoid social situations altogether, including interacting with family and loved ones.

People dealing with dementia can lose motivation to maintain physical activity and sometimes neglect necessary daily activities such as eating or basic personal hygiene. If you or someone you know is experiencing some of these difficulties in caring for a loved one with dementia, it may be worth considering investing in a furry companion.

Why animals? 

Animals, by their very “nature” are non-judgmental, making them the perfect therapists and companions for individuals with dementia. They can provide a tremendous source of social support and unconditional love.

Research shows that people with dementia recognize a pet in the environment as friendly and non-threatening. When they have a pet with them, studies show they display more interactive behaviors, although these behaviors are often directed toward the pet rather than their human companions.

Dogs have proven to reduce agitation and increase pleasure just by their presence. They also have the ability to increase the amount of physical activity a patient participates in. Depending on the mobility of the patient, they may be able to engage in playful activities with the dog, take it on a short walk, or simply take the time and effort to groom the animal.

It has even been shown that dementia patients eat more following the visit of a therapy animal. Spending time with an animal has even been correlated to lower blood pressure and increased odds of survival after a heart attack. Many individuals with Alzheimer’s, who respond to little or nothing else in their environment, will respond to the non-threatening presence of a gentle therapy animal. An animal also provides a natural and easy conversation topic for dementia patients, who often feel a great deal of strain from being put into social situations.

Aren’t animals a bit too unpredictable to be depended on?

It takes a very special kind of animal to be used for therapy. It is crucial that the animal is of pleasant and suitable temperament. An animal’s personality will be the largest determinant of if they are cut out to be a therapy animal. An ideal animal is one that is friendly, comfortable with strangers, and not easily startled. A loud or anxious animal will have the opposite effect, and cause increased anxiety in people struggling with stress of their dementia-related disorder. It’s also important to remember that no matter how pleasant the temperament of an animal is, if a patient is allergic or even averse to a particular kind animal, such as a dog, its presence will not be positively received.

What kind of care do therapy animals require?

Therapy animals are a large time commitment due to the lengthy training they require. They must be able to sit, stay, perform tricks on command, and resist distractions, such as other animals or attractive smells.

Although therapy animals for dementia patients are a recently emerging therapeutic treatment, there are certifications and registrations that exist to uphold a high standard for these animals. The animals must be bathed and groomed regularly, as the individuals they are interacting with on a daily basis are likely susceptible to disease and infection. Like any working person being held to this higher standard, the animal must have off-time from the job as well. While some facilities have a resident therapy animal that visits patients during the day, the animal is allowed to leave the facility at night for a break.

This sounds great – I would love to know more!

While research is still being developed on therapy animals in the Alzheimer’s and dementia field, it is evident that therapy animals have done a lot of good with many people already.  Check out this video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M5WFe6K5xVU) , which elaborates on the positive effects therapy dogs can have on those with dementia.

The following programs are available. Alzheimer's Project, Inc. does not endorse or recommend one program over the other.

Dogwish.org is a program based out of California. The price for a dog can be anywhere from $15,000-$25,000 and the training process can be 3-6 months.  http://www.dogwish.org/

Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Anicals (MSPCA) has a list of therapy dogs in Massachusetts: http://www.mspca.org/programs/pet-owner-resources/living-with-pets/pet-therapy-programs.html

Service dogs are also available in Israel and Scotland. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/canine-corner/201401/assistance-dogs-alzheimers-and-dementia-patients