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Pets in Dementia Care: Helpful Companions?

Helping your loved ones through the cognitive decline of dementia is tough. You may be wondering if the addition of a pet to the home could provide your family member or friend with the constant support and unconditional love that you would want if you were in their place. With the proper preparation and caution, the addition of an animal companion could be beneficial to both the dementia patient and the caregiver.

Dementia care and pet benefits

An area of interest for many people trying to help their loved ones with dementia is the impact of pets on emotional health in dementia patients. Pet or animal-assisted therapy could have several benefits for patients with dementia, including:

  • Improved cognitive function and fewer behavioral disturbances. Caring for a pet can boost cognitive function and reduce behavioral issues like delusion, disinhibition, euphoria, and aberrant motor activity in dementia patients through interaction and memory stimulation.
  • Improved social behaviors. Dogs elicit social behaviors, such as smiling or speaking, in patients with dementia. Alert dementia patients are more likely to have long conversations with one another when animals are present. They may also exhibit less verbal aggression.
  • Reduced loneliness and depression. Patients with dementia in pet therapy self-report less loneliness and depression and a better quality of life. Caregivers also report that animals relieve loneliness and boredom in patients with dementia. Similarly, pets alleviate these symptoms in the caregivers themselves.

Pets may also improve the physical health of patients with dementia. These benefits include:

  • Increased exercise. Providing care for pets, especially dogs, can increase physical activity for dementia patients. They are more likely to report walking over three hours a week when compared to dementia patients without animal interaction.
  • Increased dietary intake and weight. Patients with dementia have been shown to eat more and maintain a higher weight with the simple addition of an aquarium to their dining areas.
  • Decreased blood pressure. Animal-assisted therapy decreases patient blood pressure, improving cardiovascular health.

Checklist of questions to ask yourself

Pet ownership is a lot of responsibility, and the decision to introduce a pet into your home should not be made lightly.

We've included a list of questions to consider before bringing a pet into the life of your loved one with dementia.

  1. Does the person with dementia have the mental capacity to agree to pet ownership? If the person with dementia will be providing care to the animal, they must be able to consent to and express interest in having a pet.
  2. Is the person capable of meeting all of an animal's needs, including feeding, watering, veterinary care, cleaning, bathing, and grooming? The welfare of the animal is important. If the person with dementia can't provide for the animal's needs, will you fill in that role? A pet should not be put into a dangerous situation, so if your loved one's dementia has caused aggressive behavior, animal safety needs to be considered, as well.
  3. What is your plan if the person with dementia loses the ability to care for their pet or passes away? Make sure you're considering the ethical concern of a pet becoming homeless in the event the person can no longer care for them. Will you or another loved one take on the pet?
  4. If the dementia patient has to move to a specialized care facility, will they be able to take their pet? If not, will the pet be able to visit them? A pet can be a stabilizing force, and having the pet removed from their care may cause distress.
  5. How will the dementia patient react if the pet becomes sick or passes away? The loss of a pet can cause mental anguish for everyone involved. Will you be able to care for the patient if the animal passes away? Pet loss and mourning are serious, and their impacts should not be underestimated for either the patient or you.
  6. What are the health risks to the person with dementia? Animals have the potential to cause injury and illness. Dog and cat bites can be serious injuries, sometimes resulting in infection or disfigurement. Animals are also trip hazards and can knock people over. There is also the risk of zoonotic disease transmission between pets and people, such as cat scratch fever (bartonellosis), scabies, giardia, intestinal worms, and more. Keep the pet up-to-date on vaccinations and parasite preventives to protect the health of both the pet and the people who care for it. Make sure you know the dementia patient doesn't have pet allergies before bringing a pet home.
  7. Who will bear the legal and financial responsibility for the pet? The patient with dementia may not be able to financially provide for the veterinary and daily care needs, so you may need to shoulder this burden. If the animal causes injury to other people or destruction of property, there could be legal implications. Different jurisdictions also have legal requirements regarding pet licensure, vaccination, and more that will require your involvement. You may need to act as the responsible party.

Pet insurance for therapy animals

Pet insurance does not cover any training needed to make an animal an appropriate therapy animal. However, pet insurance can help cover the medical needs of your therapy animal, including their vaccines and examinations, accidents, and illnesses. You would need to look into the specific type of pet insurance plan to determine which of the animal's medical bills could be reimbursed.

To be an emotional support animal (ESA), a physician or mental health professional must put into writing their support for the use of the animal as an ESA. The pet doesn't have to receive specific training or certifications to be an ESA. Therapy animals are usually certified by an animal-assisted intervention organization and have to undergo training, as well as both veterinary and behavioral evaluations. Therapy animals aren't recognized by federal law, and whether they can enter a facility is up to the facility's management.

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Creating a safe and positive environment

You need to create a safe and positive environment for both the pet and the person with dementia. Some animals that would make wonderful pets for healthy individuals may not be good options for your loved one at this time.

First off, consider the size and age of the animal. A large dog who doesn't jump on people may be a great pet for someone with dementia, but a jumpy large dog could cause injury. Calm cats are great options, but playful cats who occasionally bite or run out at moving objects may not be a safe fit. Adult animals may be more well-suited to your loved one, especially when we're talking about dogs. Young puppies require a lot of training and a stable routine, including very frequent potty breaks.

When choosing an animal, you'll want to make sure the animal has a calm temperament. Situations can sometimes become volatile, and you don't want your pet to feed off that energy and potentially become stressed or even dangerous. Consider selecting an animal from someone willing to let you take the pet home for a trial period.

You need to be able to provide for the animal's needs, so a low-maintenance animal may be a better fit than a pet that needs a lot of grooming care. For example, a short-coated dog or a cat requires less grooming maintenance than a husky or a poodle.

Ensure your environment is safe for an animal and pet-proof the home. Does the dementia patient leave doors open? Do they leave food out that could cause injury to the pet? Make sure you're considering if you can provide a good home to the animal while selecting a pet.

Alternatives to pet ownership

If you and your loved one are not able to provide full-time care to a pet, you could consider regular visits from a friend or family member's pet or a therapy animal. These would allow you and the person with dementia to benefit from animal interaction without the responsibility of pet ownership.

A 2016 study found that robotic pets may be beneficial to people with dementia, as well. This is another option you could consider if you hesitate to bring a pet into the picture.

Resources for caregivers

The following organizations have published information on pets for patients with dementia. They may serve as a good resource while you navigate the possibility of pet ownership.

  • Alzheimer's Association
  • Alzheimer's Foundation of America
  • Alzheimer's Society

To ensure you're meeting the animal's needs, visit the American Veterinary Medical Association's pet care guidelines.

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