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Does Pet Therapy Help Seniors with Dementia?

by Martha Stettinius, Dementia Expert
August 09, 2013

Question: What is pet therapy? Is it true that it can help a senior cope with the challenges of dementia?


“Pet therapy” is when caregivers use pets to help a person with dementia feel calmer and happier. Research suggests that interacting with a pet can relieve depression and anxiety in people with dementia; lower a person’s blood pressure and heart rate; and increase their appetite. Dogs, cats, fish, and other animals can lighten a person’s mood, even in the last stages of dementia.

My mother, who had vascular dementia and probable Alzheimer’s disease, seemed to relax whenever my miniature Schnauzer, Shadow, lay on her lap. Even in her final year with dementia, Mom was able to pet him a little bit and stroke his ears, gazing down at him and smiling. Since my mother had owned three miniature Schnauzers before dementia set in, I believe that she remembered, deep down, how it felt to pet them and love them. Whenever I took her for walks in her wheelchair with Shadow snuggled on her lap, Mom looked serene.

My mother’s roommate, a sweet woman in an earlier stage of dementia than my mother, would always perk up at the sight of Shadow, invite him onto her lap, talk to him, and laugh. Like many of the other residents in Mom’s nursing home, she seemed to “come alive” whenever he was in the room.

If you are a caregiver looking for a dementia care facility for your loved one such as a “memory care” assisted living facility or a nursing home, look for one that welcomes animals on site, such as the staff’s own dogs or cats brought from home; visits by pets owned by the family of residents; or regular visits by certified pet therapy dogs through local organizations.  Many assisted living facilities are now allowing residents to bring their pets when they move in. Nursing homes that are part of the Eden Alternative® registry believe strongly in the value of having animals on the premises every day to relieve what they call the three plagues of elder care:  loneliness, helplessness, and boredom.

If you care for a loved one with dementia at home, pet therapy may simply mean helping to take care of your loved one’s pet so they can remain together. It could also mean “redirecting” your loved one to pay attention to the pet instead of whatever is causing them agitation.  And although having a pet requires a bit more work from a family caregiver, an animal in the home can help relieve caregiver stress and provide companionship.

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Martha Stettinius was a “sandwich generation” caregiver for 8 years for her mother with dementia, and is the author of the book “Inside the Dementia Epidemic: A Daughter’s Memoir.” An editor with a master’s in English Education from Columbia University, she blogs for and serves as a volunteer representative for New York State for the Caregiver Action Network.

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