The Surprising Power of Pet Therapy for Dementia

pet therapy dementia

Who would be the ideal companion for your loved one with dementia? Would you want someone with an unlimited supply of love and affection? Someone who could listen to the same story 20 times and never get frustrated or bored?

Ideally, this would be a friend who never showed judgment over your loved one’s declining abilities or loss of words. Someone who provides comforting physical affection and never hesitates at watery eyes, shaky hands or contracted limbs. A calm and gentle presence that could help your loved one in countless ways.

It turns out that these wonder workers do exist, and they come in all shapes and sizes.

There’s Legend, a large, sable collie with a striking resemblance to the TV star Lassie, or Kinako, a curious cat who enjoys naps and newspaper clippings. Sailor, a playful and at times naughty horse loves to get attention but will steadfastly offer comfort when he senses pain. And there’s Sparkles, a prideful beta fish that loves to show off its colorful tail.

Research has shown that the powerful connection between humans and animals benefits the physical, emotional, social and mental health of someone with dementia. These furry, feathery and scaly friends have the ability to trigger memories of past animals and can help your loved one feel more at ease.

How therapy animals can help

Animals have an amazing inability to judge or be critical. Being in a room (or a barn!) with a therapeutic animal can drastically improve dementia symptoms. Among other issues, animals can help those with dementia combat the following issues.

  • anxiety
  • agitation
  • irritability
  • depression
  • loneliness

When you cuddle, stroke and talk to an animal, your body releases endorphins as well as other feel-good hormones such as oxytocin, prolactin and dopamine. This helps lower blood pressure, relieve pain, and foster a sense of calm and joy.

Dr. Sandra Barker, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University, reports that even brief interactions with a therapy dog have been shown to reduce anxiety and fear. Participants in one study noted feeling more relaxed, less lonely and less pain after a visit with a therapy dog.

Which animals are most therapeutic? The therapeutic effects of animals are not limited to any one species. Studies have shown health benefits from spending time with a range of different animals including fish, cats, dogs and horses.

Fish

Fish are one of the easiest animals to add to your own home or to a nursing home. A 6-week study followed 62 individuals with Alzheimer’s living in a special care unit. After a fish aquarium was added to the unit, researchers found that participants’ nutritional intake increased significantly, resulting in an average weight gain of 1.65 pounds over 16 weeks.

Whether via a small fish bowl inhabited by a single beta fish or a large aquarium filled with many species, watching a fish in water can be highly soothing for your loved one with dementia.

Cats

Cats aren’t just popular family pets, they can also make for great resident pets and visiting pets in senior care communities. Even the simple act of gently stroking a cat can improve your day, life coach Desiree Wiercyski told WebMD. Wiercyski notes in the article that “touch helps increase oxytocin levels and reduces cortisol, the infamous stress-related hormone.”

Another advantage of feline friends for those with dementia? They tend to be low-maintenance yet high in affection. Tokyo-based photographer Akiko DuPont beautifully captured the relationship between her grandfather with Alzheimer’s and his beloved cat, Kinako. DuPont says in an interview with The Dodo that when her grandpa first saw the cat, “his eyes shined full of happiness.” The pair have been constant companions ever since.

Dogs

Dogs are the classic example of an animal’s unconditional love and devotion. For over 10 years, Dr. Mara Baun has studied the therapeutic effects of dogs on dementia patients in a special care unit. She found that when there was a therapy dog in the unit the patients were less disoriented, wandered less and were less likely to be aggressive.

Social isolation can often occur among those with dementia, sometimes because others stay away out of discomfort. Or, your loved one may lose the ability to initiate and maintain appropriate social relationships as their dementia progresses.

Baun says therapy dogs provide a missing element of physical and social contact. The dogs she observed in the dementia care facility would approach residents regardless of their physical deterioration or confusion and initiate contact. A resident could pet, hug and interact with the dog. These positive interactions provided a sense of relief and distracted the resident from their agitation.

Billie Smith, Executive Director of Alliance of Therapy Dogs, says that during one visit to the facility she found an agitated patient with dementia screaming at her care worker and a family member. As soon as the therapy dog team walked in the door, the woman immediately calmed and sat down with open arms and a smile on her face for her “Little Buddy.” Even as the team prepared to leave, the patient remained calm, happily talking about the dog she once owned.

Horses

While a horse is not an animal you can easily add to your home, programs like The Connected Horse allow access to horses for both the person living with dementia and their caregiver. These large, gentle animals are amazingly perceptive and through non-verbal responses and behaviors, can act as a mirror to the participants.

“Being with horses miraculously allows us to feel what we are often unable to articulate with words — liberating the senses to experience emotional connections to something much deeper,” says Paula Hertel, MSW, The Connected Horse’s co-founder and president.

In the calming, non-judgmental presence of these therapeutic animals many participants feel:

  • A sense of clarity
  • An ability to adjust to changing roles
  • An emptying of overwhelming emotions like fear, grief and negativity
  • An appreciation for being in the present moment with their loved ones

Stacia Kirby, a spokeswoman for The Connected Horse, describes what unfolded when one participant with dementia was grooming a horse. He picked up each of the animal’s large, heavy hooves and cleaned them thoroughly. In the one hoof he found a small rock causing the horse discomfort. Patiently and with determination, he focused on dislodging the rock until the hoof was clean. The participant thanked the horse and expressed how good it felt to help the horse find relief and comfort. Kirby recalls how he said, “It feels good to be useful again.”

Research conducted at Stanford University’s School of Medicine found that after the program, participants showed improvement in social support, better sleep and decreased anxiety and depression.

How to access animal therapy for your loved one

pet therapy dementia Therapy dog Legend, courtesy of Jared Wadley

Are you ready to have your loved one with dementia try out animal therapy?

The first step is to help connect him or her with an animal that will bring back fond memories of prior pets. Jared Wadley, a dog handler with therapy dog organization Therapaws of Michigan describes taking his sable collie, Legend, to see an older veteran with dementia. The man immediately warmed up to Legend, petting her and discussing past experiences with his own beloved collie.

“I could tell our time with him brought him comfort and joy as he recalled for a short time what his collie meant to him,” says Wadley.

Animals at home

If you or your loved one with dementia already have a pet in your home, take full advantage of their therapeutic effects. A survey conducted by the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute showed that 74 percent of pet owners said that a pet improved their mental health.

Participating in the daily routine of animal care adds to the quality of life for many people. Psychology professor Stanley Coren writes in Psychology Today that when you take a dog for a walk you’re more like to be engaged in conversation by other people. This conversation is often predictable and provides a positive and social interaction. Pets decrease the sense of loneliness and isolation often experienced by a person with dementia.

If the thought of adding a pet to your life is too overwhelming, there are other options. Consider asking a friend or family member to regularly visit with their pet, or look into pet fostering programs near you for a more temporary pet.

Who to contact for home therapy

You can contact organizations that work with therapy animals directly to arrange home visits or workshops. Below are a few options.

In a senior care community

If your loved one with dementia lives in an assisted living or memory care community, your first step would be to talk to the community’s program coordinator. Ask about their pet policies and whether you’ll be allowed to bring a pet in to visit your loved one. Many communities have already taken advantage of therapy animal programs and have an on-site cat or dog for all of the residents to enjoy.

  • Alliance of Therapy Dogs provides, at no cost to the facility, a therapy dog program.
  • Therapy Dogs International can also be contacted by any senior care community to arrange free visits by trained therapy dogs.
  • In Michigan, Therapaws works directly with long-term care facilities and can be contacted by the facility to set up visits.

Crystal Jo

Crystal Jo is a registered nurse and a professional freelance writer. See full bio