Are animals and Alzheimer’s a good mix?

Pets in general, including dogs and cats, can be very therapeutic. Many nursing facilities, in fact, incorporate “pet therapy” into their daily routines as much as they can. 

However, as with many treatment or alternative therapy options, everything is contingent upon the individuals involved. Some will respond well to animals, some do not. Sometimes, responses are entirely a surprise. Take, for example, the resident of an Alzheimer’s unit who grew up on a farm. She liked animals, but because they were never allowed in the house, an aide had to take her for a walk whenever visiting pets were brought into her facility  — her HOME. It upset her to see dogs in her “house.” 

Many people fear animals, including dogs. Some dogs, however, can be trained to be excellent companions or “playmates.” They are taught to remain calm around elderly individuals and will not to become rambunctious or jumpy. Often, the trained pets are taught to lie nearby so they can be petted throughout the day. It also creates a more leisurely “home-like” feel. 

If a person with dementia has enjoyed pets most of his or her life, odds are pets going to be well-received and enjoyed even after Alzheimer’s or another debilitating condition arrives. Sometimes caregivers or family members buy a dog specifically to give an individual something to focus on and to provide more companionship. A pet will create an entirely extra world of activities. A person with dementia can feed and/or water a pet, or brush it or take it for a walk. This also can raise self-esteem because the person will acquire a sense of responsibility for a living, breathing and tail-wagging friend. Every individual needs to feel needed and a pet can fill that purpose. 

If there is a dog already in the house, watch to see if its behavior changes, too. If a dog senses something is different, it will respond and, in this situation, become very protective. The dog is likely to stay close to the person with dementia and act as guard and protector. If the dog belonged to another family member or was not particularly close with the Alzheimer’s patient previously, it doesn’t matter. The animal will remain close with both of you, but it most likely will take a lead in accompanying the person with Alzheimer’s. 

Many types of pets can be therapeutic. Cats have soft coats and like to curl up in laps. This is an example of the way pets can be wonderful additions to Alzheimer’s patients because they offer “unconditional love.”  

Fish can be fun to watch and are quite soothing. Birds can serenade, and also be fun to watch — inside or out. Filling outside bird feeders might be a good activity for you and your loved one to complete together. Then, you can sit back and watch the grateful birds fly in for their snacks.