Whether it's a big floppy dog, a bird, a cat, or even a fish aquarium, the benefits of having a pet for one with Alzheimer's or other dementia are numerous.
Just because someone has a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia-related conditions, it’s not always the case that they need to give up their pet.
Animals by their very nature are non-judgemental, which makes them perfect companions for people affected by dementia. They won’t question behaviour or get frustrated with people, and provide a fantastic source of social support and unconditional love.
Their use in dementia care can be beneficial if managed in the right way. Here’s what you need to consider.
After a diagnosis
If you’ve just discovered you have dementia, or know someone who has a pet and is in this position, it can be tempting to think that the first thing you need to do is give up the animal as they won’t be able to care for it.
However, you do need to judge the situation according to the person and the pet. If their diagnosis has come quite late into the dementia journey and their symptoms are very advanced, the responsibility of a pet may be too much for them. However, if it’s still quite early on, they will probably be able to continue as normal.
Likewise, if their pet is an energetic, bouncy or anxious dog that needs regular walks and constant attention, it might not be best for someone who is struggling to remember to walk or feed them. But if it’s a well-loved cat or calm dog that is low-maintenance and doesn’t require much more than plenty of love and cuddles, then it could be more helpful to keep the pet rather than cause the trauma of removing the pet from them.
The key is working the care of the pet into the daily activities of someone with dementia and ensuring that they have constant signs and reminders for walks and feed times, so they don’t try to over or under-feed or walk them.
Benefits of having a pet for someone with dementia
There is increasing amounts of research showing that interaction with pet animals can be extremely beneficial for people with dementia. This includes:
Interacting, stroking, chatting – these are all useful experiences that can help to keep someone with dementia engaged and happy.
People recognise pets (especially trained ‘therapy’ pets) as being friendly and non-threatening, and this can help to reduce agitation and increase pleasure.
They can increase activity levels in people if the animal needs regular walks and encourage them to get outdoors. They have been shown to reduce blood pressure, increase the odds of survival after a heart attack, and even encourage appetite in people following the visit of an animal.
Pets provide a topic for conversation. They can learn information about the pet’s breed, discuss the personality and even chat to other pet owners if they’re out walking with it.
Boost fun in their life
Like young children, dementia patients who spend time with pets can enjoy the fun that they can bring, whether it’s chasing after a ball, playing with a bit of wool, or even repeating funny phrases back to them (we’re talking parrots here!).
When to give up a pet
There may come a time when you have to consider finding a new home for a pet, if the person with dementia can't cope anymore. Signs that pet care may be becoming too much include accidents in the home (because the owner forgets to let the animal out regularly), or if the pet starts putting on or losing weight (it's not being fed properly). Maybe the person with dementia is beginning to complain about their cat or dog themselves - this is another indication that they too, have had enough.
Taking the pet away could be quite a traumatic experience for the owner, so see if the animal can be rehomed with friends or family nearby in the first instance in case they want to visit it.
Pets As Therapy
If the person with dementia doesn’t have a pet animal, you may find opportunities to introduce them to a pets as therapy (PAT) animal.
These are specially trained animals (often dogs but they can also be cats) which have a very calm temperament, are not easily distracted and are happy around all people. They’re often taken around day centres, nursing homes and hospitals for a morning so that people can pet and stroke them.
They can be very useful for people staying in residential homes as they provide a source of reminiscence and conversation for people who used to own pets, as well being a calming and enjoyable influence.
Pet-friendly care homes
As people are beginning to appreciate the benefits of animals in dementia care, many care homes are becoming ‘pet friendly’. This doesn’t necessarily mean that someone who moves into a care home can bring their pet with them, but it can mean they allow regular visits from the pet.
However, there are some homes that will let you bring your pet. It’s best to check the individual policies of each care home to see what they will allow, as they’ll need to check if they have the right space or facilities.
Using 'fake' pets
Sometimes people with dementia can get much benefit from teddies and soft toys that are similar to a pet, and which they can cuddle and pet as if it was their own. This can often be difficult for family members to come to terms with as they may feel that seeing their loved one playing with a toy is demeaning (and is a concern that's also raised with doll therapy). However, it's important to think about what gives the most comfort to a loved one, and if holding a cuddling a soft puppy or kitten toy calms them, and reduces agitation, it could be worth it.
Whether it’s feeding, walking or grooming [a pet] these are straightforward activities which many people with dementia will take great pride and enjoyment in doing.