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Home > General > Can Pets Help People with Dementia or Alzheimer’s? The Surprising Answer

Can Pets Help People with Dementia or Alzheimer’s? The Surprising Answer

Pet therapy in dementia treatment on elderly woman

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Dr. Lorna Whittemore

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Pets have a number of benefits for people of all stripes. People love pets, and the bond between animals and humans has been integral for thousands of years. This has raised the question in recent years about whether pets can help people with dementia or Alzheimer’s. Recently, a batch of new studies has shed some light on the question, and the results are encouraging. According to various new studies, pets can have a net positive impact on people suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s, but the results will not be the same for every individual or patient. There is also a difference between owning a pet and interacting with pets.

Here is what the data shows about the potential help pets can provide to people with dementia.

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Owning a Pet

The effects of pet ownership on elderly people suffering from mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease were evaluated in a study published in 2021. Overall, the effects were positive. Participants were surveyed and measured against a baseline once per year over a period of three to five years. The results were compared between non-pet owners and pet owners. Pet-owning seniors (average age of 75) performed better in overall mental acuity scores over time compared to people who did not own any pets.

Owning a pet can be beneficial in numerous ways. It can help create an ingrained routine involving the pet, whether it be daily walks or regular feedings. Pets also help reduce stress and loneliness, which are both things that can adversely affect dementia symptoms. Depending on the severity of the disease progression, the individual person, and the living situation, pets can have a lot of positive benefits for people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Caring for elderly with dementia and Alzheimer's disease
Image By: Yelizaveta Tomashevska, Shutterstock

Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT)

Not everyone is willing or able to own a pet full-time. The good news is that people suffering from dementia can still get the benefits of pets without owning one themselves by participating in animal-assisted therapy (AAT). Animal assisted therapy are sessions where people interact with pets to receive the benefits without the added burden of pet ownership.

A series of studies in recent years examined the effects of AAT on people with dementia and found that AAT can provide benefits to people in certain situations. For the best effects of AAT, it should be provided by a professional as a complementary therapy to other forms of treatment. The severity of the disease, the person’s individual needs, and interests will all impact the overall results of animal therapy on a patient.

Animal-assisted therapy works best for behavioral and psychological symptoms. However, not every dementia patient will benefit from AAT.

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Things to Consider Before Getting a Pet for Someone with Dementia

Can They Consent to a Pet?

You should never make a decision for someone, especially someone who might be suffering from dementia. Even if you think that a person might benefit greatly from some animal companionship, you should never get them a pet unless they are in a position to consent to it. In some cases, a caretaker might be able to consent to a pet if they are willing to help take care of it or explain it to the patient. If the dementia patient cannot consent to a pet or cannot agree to accept a pet, you should not get them a pet.

Can They Care for a Pet?

Depending on the phase of dementia or progression of Alzheimer’s, a person might not be able to effectively care for a pet. Pet neglect and poor care are common side effects of aging owners, especially those with dementia. If you are not confident that your family member or patient can adequately care for a pet, you should absolutely not provide them with one. Mobility issues, poor finances, and dementia are all potential indicators of a higher risk of animal neglect, even if it is unintentional.

A person must be able to feed and care for their pets. They have to be able to recognize signs of sickness or injury, and they must be able to respond to those signs by taking the pet to the veterinarian. If a person cannot provide all of these basic duties to their pet, they should not have one, even if you think it could benefit them.

old woman standing at home holding a cat pet dementia alzheimer's disease
Image By: Miljan Zivkovic, Shutterstock

Continuity of Care

It is likely that as the illnesses progress that help will be needed looking after the pet. Also with full-time adoption of the pet should their owner be hospitalized or pass away. Although sad to think about, plans should be made for who will look after the pet in these difficult times.

Do They Need a Full Time Pet or AAT?

Another question to ask is whether they would benefit from an owned pet or simply from some animal assisted therapy. Not everyone with dementia will benefit from owning an animal full time. They might get just as many benefits from partaking in animal-assisted therapy. Talk to the person and try to talk to their caretaker or doctor to discern which option will be best for them.

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Conclusion

Pets can help people with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, but they will not help everyone. Pets have been shown in multiple studies to have a net positive effect on many dementia patients, but the individual results will depend on a number of factors. Pet ownership can give a positive effect, but they must be used in conjunction with a doctor or caretaker who can evaluate the person’s ability to take care of or benefit from an animal. The animal’s welfare must be thoroughly assessed in the decision making process.


Featured Image Credit: Toa55, Shutterstock

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