How Does Pet Therapy Benefit People With Dementia?

Older woman sitting on porch with dog
Hillary Fox/Stocksy United

Pet therapy (also called animal-assisted therapy) for people with Alzheimer's and other kinds of dementia has received increased attention over the last several years. One reason is because of the emphasis on making facilities such as nursing homes and assisted living centers more homelike.

Dr. William Thomas proposed a theory along those lines several years ago that made others reconsider how nursing homes were designed.

He said that residents in facilities often suffered from feeling bored, lonely and helpless. He also said that bringing in children, plants and animals were some of the ways to combat those issues. These ideas led him to develop what he called the "Eden Alternative," a way of invigorating nursing home life by empowering staff and emphasizing the presence of plants, animals and children.

This movement, along with others, increased the presence of animals in nursing homes. But, do they help? Even though not everyone is a lover of animals, the answer in one word is: Yes. Overwhelmingly, research supports the benefits of use of animals with people who have dementia.

Benefits of Pet Therapy

There have been hundreds of research articles published on the benefits of pet therapy for people with dementia. Here are a few of those benefits:

1. Improved Mood

Multiple studies have cited benefits such as improved mood and more social interaction — notable benefits since people with dementia are at risk for developing depression, which can further compromise their functioning and quality of life.

One such study evaluated animal assisted therapy at an adult day care center for older adults with dementia. The results indicated that involving the people in activities with dogs decreased their feelings of anxiety and sadness and increased physical activity and positive emotions.

2. Calming Effect

In a study published in 2008, psychologists observed a calming effect following pet therapy in a small sample of nursing home residents.

Other studies have shown that animal-assisted therapy yields significantly lower blood pressure levels.

3. Decreased Behavioral Problems

Another study measured the effects of a resident dog, as opposed to a visiting dog, in a nursing home. The researchers found that after the addition of the dog to the Alzheimer's unit, the residents' challenging behaviors significantly decreased during the day.

4. Improved Nutrition

One study placed aquariums in a facility and found that residents' food intake and weight increased. This decreased the need for nutritional supplements, which lowered costs for the facility.

Types of Pet Therapy

Animal-assisted therapy runs the gamut and can include cats, bird aviaries, trained dogs and fish aquariums. Some nursing homes have animals that live at the facility, while others have people who bring animals in to visit regularly. Some communities also have programs where they'll bring in animals from the local zoo and include an educational component.

Although most of the research on pet therapy has been conducted in facilities, it can also be used if someone with dementia is living at home. The presence of a dog or cat at home, for example, can provide some of the same benefits as noted above.

Finally, remember that animals used for pet therapy should be up-to-date on their shots, well-trained, and monitored to ensure everyone's safety, as well as to minimize the exposure for people who have allergies or simply don't care to interact with them.


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Eden Alternative. About the Eden Alternative.

International Psychogeriatrics23. 6 (Aug 2011): 899-905. Animal-assisted activity and emotional status of patients with Alzheimer's disease in day care.

L'Encéphale. 2008 Apr;34(2):183-6. Epub 2007 Sep 11. Animal-assisted therapy for people suffering from severe dementia.

Western Journal of Nursing Research. October 2002; vol. 24, 6: pp. 684-696. Resident Dog in the Alzheimer’s Special Care Unit.

Western Journal of Nursing Research. 2002.; vol. 24, no. 6, pp. 697-712. Animal-Assisted Therapy and Nutrition in Alzheimer's Disease.