Once seen as purely a recreational activity, spending time with pets in the form of pet therapy has become a common strategy for dementia care and treatment.
Different from other forms of therapy, pet therapy, which can often be called animal-assisted therapy, involves guided interactions between the patient, a trained animal, and an animal therapist. It can take place in a variety of places such as:
While the most common animals used in pet therapy are dogs, this form of therapy can include a number of other animals including cats and farm animals such as horses. These animals must participate in obedience training, have experience being around different types of people, and understand how to interact with seniors whose movement may be limited.
During the treatment, individuals interact with the animals through a variety of methods such as walking them, caring for them, playing with them, petting them and cuddling with them.
For individuals who are unable to care for a real pet, a companion pet such as a beagle bundle, an Alaskan husky bundle or a black-white shorthair cat bundle could be a great option. These companions always love to cuddle and can have similar benefits as pet therapy for dementia patients.
The goals of animal-assisted therapy for the elderly differ from client to client but what remains consistent is the ability to help in various parts of someone’s life. This can include:
There are many benefits of pet therapy for individuals with minor neurocognitive decline.
Research has shown that only 15 minutes with a trained therapy animal can increase serotonin levels in the brain as well as overall brain activity.
Beyond the health benefits of pet therapy, having a pet is about companionship. Loneliness is a challenge for elderly people, especially those who live by themselves. Animals make people happy. There is a sense of loyalty and trust that comes from pets that can not be gained from human interaction.
Mentally, pet therapy helps increase mental stimulation and assists with memory recall and improved mood.
Emotionally, seniors who owned pets showed greater self-esteem, improved social skills, better communication, and more interaction with other people.
Animal-assisted therapy provides patients with a safe space to communicate which enables seniors with dementia to articulate themselves around people as they gain more comfort.
Physically, having a pet improves physical health and especially their cardiovascular health. This is shown through lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol as well as seeing reduced depression and anxiety levels.
Furthermore, pet owners also take part in more physical activity because dogs, especially, need to be walked, which encourages their owner to stay active and spend time outdoors with them.
From a personal values perspective, interacting with an animal provides seniors who have dementia with a greater sense of purpose and meaning which enables them to lead a life with an overall greater sense of wellbeing.
Curbing negative behaviour, pet therapy helps reduce anger, frustration and even the sense of helplessness that people with dementia feel.
George Eliot once said, “Animals are such agreeable friends- they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms.” While this is true for anyone with a pet, it is especially true for seniors with dementia who are able to benefit socially, emotionally, and physically from therapy with a furry friend.