Most of us get a little jolt of dopamine when viewing pictures and videos of these furry creatures being charming, silly, and deeply endearing. There’s no denying the age-old connection between our hearts and these lovable animals.
It also turns out that spending time with animals—especially companion animals, but other kinds as well—can help people with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia lead happier, healthier lives.
Pet therapy, which is sometimes referred to as animal-assisted therapy, involves connecting patients with animals, either their own pets or a visiting animal. The animals have usually received special training, and are typically selected for that training because they have an engaging personality and a calm disposition.
How do we love our animals? Let me count the ways.
There are several different types of pet therapy, each of which is best suited for different situations.
Visiting Pet Programs
Probably the most well known and widespread type of animal-assisted therapy is having trained animals, typically cats and dogs, visit patients in care homes and other facilities. The animals are accompanied by trained handlers who bring the pets from room to room, or sometimes visit with multiple patients in a common area.
These types of programs provide intermittent exposure to the animals, and can also serve as a nice way to create excitement about a special activity.
Resident Therapy Animals
Some care facilities opt to have an on-site therapy animal. This might be a dog or cat who actually lives with the residents, or just one who visits frequently. As with visiting programs, patients might enjoy one-on-one time during room visits, or while spending time in a shared space.
Having an animal that lives at a facility or is at least there for a great deal of the time also gives patients the opportunity to feel that they are part of a community caring for the animal. Being involved in this kind of caretaking can give patients a sense of purpose, of being needed. Knowing they have a part to play in feeding, grooming, or just playing with an animal can give them more of a reason to get up in the morning.
In cases where the dementia patient is able to live independently, having a pet of their own can offer many of the same benefits of working with a trained therapy animal. As long as the animal has a calm demeanor and the patient is capable of the responsibilities of caring for the animal, the arrangement can be mutually beneficial.
In some cases, the patient may need outside support to properly take care of their pet, and this can provide additional opportunities for comforting interactions with caregivers.
Companion Service Dogs
In certain cases, a dementia patient may be a good candidate for a specially-trained service dog. Like other kinds of canines who are trained to support people who are blind or have limited mobility, dogs trained to support dementia patients have a special set of skills.
One of the key jobs of a dementia service dog is to keep a patient safe by ensuring they do not leave their home unattended or get lost. These dogs are trained to prevent their owners from wandering away, and then—if those efforts fail—to lead the owner home based on a specific command. The dogs also often wear GPS tracking devices, which can help family and friends locate them and the patient.
These highly trained animals can also help with other daily tasks such as waking the patient up, locating specific items, and even bringing medications. They can also provide physical support to patients who need a little help navigating stairs, standing up from a seated position, and so forth.
Many animals. Many benefits.
However patients are able to connect with animals, there’s a good chance they will reap many benefits, both physical and emotional. Study after study has shown that there are measurable improvements in a variety of areas that influence quality of life and even relationships with caregivers.
Dementia increases risk of depression and can greatly increase anxiety and stress. Animals, whether personal pets or visiting ones, tend to have a calming effect on patients. And interactions with the animals have been shown to lower levels of stress-inducing hormones like cortisol while increasing feel-good hormones like serotonin.
These emotional benefits are likely the result of a combination of things including the general enjoyment patients derive from interacting with the animals, and the way those interactions can bring back happy memories of pet relationships from the past.
Animals are also great listeners. They don’t judge, and they don’t mind sitting in silence. The ability to connect with another being on a non-verbal level can be very comforting to dementia patients who struggle with language-based communication.
Increased Physical Activity
Whether a patient is actually helping to care for an animal by exercising or grooming it, or if they are simply engaged in more casual play, visits with companion animals often motivate patients to get out and move around more.
Fewer Behavioral Issues
The improved mood and increased physical activity can both help to reduce the frequency and intensity of agitation and aggression. It seems that the combination of feeling safer and more calm alongside increased activity helps to protect patients from overwhelming feelings of anxiety that can trigger challenging behaviors.
Improved Interest in the World and Social Interaction
One of the most heartbreaking aspects of dementia is the way it isolates patients from the rest of the world and the people who love them. Pet therapy has been shown to correlate with an increase in dementia patients’ social interactions. The visits with animals provide an opportunity for interaction not only with the animals, but also with the handlers and caretakers.
And if a dementia patient has even a small responsibility for helping to care for an animal, that can give them a renewed sense of purpose and help ground them in a comforting routine.
Pet Therapy: More than just cats and dogs.
The more we learn about the way interacting with animals can help improve the lives of dementia patients, the more the study of animal-assisted therapy expands to explore new avenues. While most pet therapy pets are cats and dogs, there are an increasing number of other animal species that are proving they also have the ability to brighten patients’ hearts and lives.
Equine therapy, whether in the saddle or from the ground, has long been a staple in treating a wide variety of physical and mental conditions. And mini horses are a great favorite at many nursing homes and memory care facilities.
Llamas and alpacas are also starting to make more appearances to work with seniors and dementia patients all around the world. As an article in The Independent points out, there’s a novelty factor, and the animals’ “big-eyed, empathetic gaze” is also greatly appealing.
There’s even an emotional support alligator in Pennsylvania. Joseph Henney, a Pennsylvania resident with a lot of experience raising reptiles, registered his pet Wally —an exceptionally well-mannered and social alligator—as an emotional support animal back in 2018. Today, visiting senior centers is part of Wally’s usual routine.
No matter what kind of animal is involved, pet therapy can provide very real and worthwhile benefits for Alzheimer’s and other dementia patients. There’s just something about connecting with an animal that brings very genuine joy, and adding even a little joy into someone’s day can make all the difference in the world.