How Animals Can Help People With Dementia, Including Alzheimer's

Dog With Senior Man
Service dogs can help their owners stick to a daily routine, including taking medicine.

When John brought Fluffy, a German Shepard trained as a service dog, home to his wife, Jo Lynne, who was suffering from a form of dementia similar to Alzheimer’s disease, he noticed positive changes in his wife’s behavior and well-being almost right away. “Fluffy gave my wife something to do that was her responsibility,” John says. “Taking care of Fluffy gave her control and gave her something else to focus on and be responsible for.”

Though there was always someone else around to help, Jo Lynne made sure Fluffy was fed, had water and went outside. The dog, who went everywhere with Jo Lynne, who has since died, did so much more, though, John says. “Fluffy relaxed Jo Lynne and the people around her, and made it a lot easier for her to communicate with others.”

Though there is much research to be done to fully establish how animals can help people with dementia, it seems that dogs, cats, horses and even fish can possibly offer benefits. Because there can be risks to consider when mixing pets with people suffering conditions such as Alzheimer's, having the temperament of both the patient and the animal assessed by qualified professionals will help keep everyone safe. 

Dogs Offer Support

“Service dogs are mentally and emotionally bonded to their handlers,” says Bob Taylor, president of Dog Wish, an organization that places psychiatric service dogs like Fluffy with people suffering from dementia, autism and other neurological conditions. “Through this bonding, the dog becomes a dynamic care partner.”  

Training service dogs for people with dementia is a relatively new trend, but it's a global one. In Scotland, the organization Dementia Dog, a recently formed partnership between Alzheimer Scotland, The Glasgow School of Art, Dogs for the Disabled and Guide Dogs UK, has paired two trained assistance dogs, Kaspa and Oscar, with people in the early stages of dementia.

The dogs live in the patients' homes and play many roles: They help keep their handlers active and social, and the pups also help them stick to a daily routine. For example, Oscar fetches a medicine bag twice a day to remind his handler to take medications. And according to one of Kaspa’s handlers, “He has given us our life back. He greets Ken in the morning, so Ken’s day begins in a happy way. I have noticed if Ken is agitated or unsettled, Kaspa gives him a nudge so Ken talks to the dog or goes out into the back garden and forgets what had bothered him.”

The pilot project was a success right off the bat, with caregivers of the dementia sufferers noticing almost immediate improvement in everything from conversation skills to medication compliance and agitation. 

But it’s not just trained service dogs who help. Spending time with pet dogs has been shown to help people with dementia by stimulating memories, lessening confusion and loneliness, and increasing socialization, among other things. 

Horses Can Help Calm. Cats May Foster Communication

In a recent study from The Ohio State University, when people with Alzheimer’s disease visited a farm, where, under supervision, they walked, groomed, bathed and fed horses, their behavior improved and they were more physically active than usual. Why? “It is most likely a combination of the horses and their quiet, calm, nonjudgmental behavior; the smells of the country; and the unhurried, relaxed quietness of the farm environment,” explains study co-author Gwendolen Lorch, DVM, Ph.D., who adds that for 80 percent of subjects, spending time on the farm triggered fond memories of their childhoods.

The bottom line, Lorch says: “Animals and allowing the affected individual to be placed in environments where they had pleasant memories can provide relaxation and moments of happiness for the person that can then affect their attitudes and behavior for the duration of the day.”

Senior Woman Interacting With Cat
A study showed that interacting with cats helped women with dementia living in a nursing home.

Cats can also do their part. In a study of women with dementia living in a nursing home, those who spent 10 minutes with cats had an increase in meaningful communication both while they were with the animals and immediately afterward.

Fish May Help Reduce Aggression

When it comes to the healing power of pets, we tend to think of cuddly dogs and furry cats, but even animals we don’t touch can deliver psychological and physiological benefits. Case in point: When researchers at Purdue University placed fish tanks in the Alzheimer’s unit in three nursing homes, patients who spent time near the tanks, which were filled with colorful fish, were more relaxed and alert and were less likely to yell, wander off or be aggressive. What’s more, they ate up to 21 percent more food than before (that’s a good thing, since many people with Alzheimer’s disease don’t eat well). The researchers theorize that the movement and color of the fish and the sounds of the tank stimulated patients, keeping their interest.

Have you had any experience with pets helping those with dementia? If so, share in the comments below.

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