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How Does Pet Therapy Benefit People With Dementia?

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It’s gut-wrenching and heartbreaking to have to witness an older parent or loved one live with dementia. You wish there was something more you could do to help, but you’re just not sure where to start. What about with pet therapy? Can this form of therapy help those with dementia, and if so, how?

Pet therapy benefits people with dementia in several ways. These patients may be less depressed and anxious with a pet therapy animal in the room. A pet can also provide companionship and make a senior with dementia feel less alone. 

In this article, we will tell you everything you need to know about pet therapy for seniors with dementia. While pets can be a tremendous source of joy, sometimes the animal can have an adverse effect on the senior through no fault of the pet’s own. We’ll also guide you through what to do in such a situation.

The Best Dog Breed For Dementia Patients

Smaller, less obstructive dog breeds are recommended for seniors with limited mobility or those who need closer care. Your older parent or loved one with dementia may fit that bill. In that case, then the breeds you want to focus on are:

  • Pomeranians
  • Yorkshire terriers
  • Poodles
  • Beagles
  • Shih-tzus
  • Boston terriers
  • Chihuahuas
  • Cocker spaniels
  • Schnauzers
  • Pugs

Not only are these dogs cute, but they tend to live a decade or longer, which is another great perk.

It’s not that a larger breed couldn’t make a wonderful pet for someone with dementia (particularly if the dog was a family member before the person was diagnosed), but because of their size, larger dogs often don’t live as long. In addition, an energetic large dog may be too intimidating for someone with cognitive issues – the person may be afraid of being knocked over by the dog or fear they will get bitten.

Do Cats Help With Dementia, Too?

What if the senior in your life always had a predilection for cats instead of dogs? Do cats have the same benefits for dementia patients that we discussed above?

Absolutely! While it depends on the personality of the feline in question, cats are definitely capable of being sweet house pets that can do a dementia patient a world of good. The senior will feel less stressed and lonely, their depression melting away when they spend time petting their purring, fuzzy friend.

One upside that cats have over dogs is there’s no need to bathe them or take them out for walks. Cats will use their litter box when they need to and take care of most cleanliness routines themselves. Since dementia patients can get quite forgetful, minimizing responsibilities in pet care is best for them.

If you do decide to give your senior a cat instead of a dog for pet therapy purposes, you want to make sure it’s a friendlier cat. One who’s easily startled or agitated by the slightest noise is probably not a good pick for a therapy companion. Overly playful cats or those that are prone to scratching or biting should also be reconsidered. You may even opt to get the cat declawed, although cat lovers tend to have very strong feelings on that matter.

There’s no need to limit pet therapy to just cats and dogs, either. Animals such as fish, turtles, and birds are other viable options.

Consider Dementia Robotic Pets

While the positive effect animals like cats or dogs can have on a senior with dementia is undeniable, caring for real pets is difficult.

If your senior has a dog, they must be able to remember to give the animal fresh food and water every day. They must also be able to take the dog on frequent trips outdoors and get them some exercise through walks or play. Long-term, the elder would have to bring the dog in for vet appointments, bathe them, get their nails trimmed, and maintain the length of the canine’s coat.

Even cats require effort. While cats can bathe themselves and use a litter box, the senior would still have to clean out the litter box once a day, maybe even more. Cats also need fresh food and water daily and must go to the vet every now and again.

Having a pet is a ton of work and something a senior with dementia should not be responsible for on their own. In fact, we would never recommend that a pet be placed with a person who would be the animal’s sole caretaker when they are in a cognitive decline and may not even necessarily care for themselves.

For this reason, many caretakers of seniors with dementia opt for getting robotic pets. As we’ve talked about before on this blog, robotic pets are not just toys. They look, sound, and feel like the real deal. These pets can walk, bark, meow, and some even have a heartbeat. Check out this video from CBS New York – you’ll be amazed!

Here are the robotic pets we recommend for older people with dementia:

Ageless Innovation Joy For All Companion Pet Cat

Those seniors who always lived among cats and like them more than dogs should love the Ageless Innovation companion cat from Joy for All. You can select from a variety of cats for your senior, among them a silver cat with white mitts, an orange tabby, a creamy white kitty, and a black and white one.

The companion pets from Joy for All took home prizes in 2016 and 2017 for caregiver innovation. It’s no wonder these robotic animals have been featured on BBC Radio, CBS, and in the Baltimore Sun, People Magazine, and the New York Times.

The Ageless Innovation cat has sensors throughout that allow it to react when your senior hugs or pets it. Joy for All also added VibraPurr technology to mimic the most realistic purring you’ll hear. Your senior can even brush the fur of this robotic cat, as it looks and feels amazingly lifelike.

Joy for All’s Ageless Innovation companion cat can do things like move its body and head, open and close its mouth and eyes, and raise a paw.

Ageless Innovation Joy for All Companion Pet Dog

We also recommend the Ageless Innovation companion dog from Joy for All. Admittedly, you can’t choose from different breeds like you could for the cat. That said, this adorable golden retriever-like puppy is sure to win over the heart of your senior.

It has BarkBack technology for a very realistic bark and other dog sounds. That same technology allows the puppy to listen to your senior’s voice and react accordingly. It too features sensors for interactivity that feels like having a dog in real life but with none of the responsibilities.

The gentle puppy coat of this robotic dog has a realistic feel that the senior will enjoy petting. The pup even has its own heartbeat, making him a very viable companion.

Are There Service Dogs for Alzheimer’s Patients?

Service dogs are animals that assist the disabled, including those with diabetes, mobility impairments, seizures, mental illnesses, hearing impairment, and/or visual impairment. It sounds like a service dog could be a good fit for a senior parent or loved one with Alzheimer’s, right?

Indeed, service dogs do help Alzheimer’s patients every day. According to a 2017 report in the International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being, more dementia and Alzheimer’s patients have begun to rely on animal-assisted therapy and service animals, such as dogs or cats. These service animals can boost socialization, wellbeing, and more.

If a service canine interacted with your Alzheimer’s patient, they would have gone through special training to handle a myriad of situations. For instance, they would have learned behavior interruption so they wouldn’t contribute to a senior’s anxiety.

This and the rest of their training is extensive and can last for up to two years. According to Being Patient, training alone costs $40,000 to $60,000 if an organization does it. Owning or working with a service dog is priced at about $1,500 annually with the potential for costs to go up. 

Taking Dog Away From Alzheimer’s Patient – How To Do It

The relationship a senior can have with a pet therapy dog or cat (be that a real one or a robotic animal) is one they cherish. Sadly, sometimes things can go wrong.

Dementia and Alzheimer’s patients are prone to agitation, probably in part to the confusion and mental turmoil they experience regularly.

Mood changes can happen in these seniors. If the swings are not extreme, then you could perhaps continue to keep a dog or cat with your senior. However, if repeated incidents occur, then you have to think about separating the dog (or cat) from the senior for the animal’s safety. But, how do you even go about doing this?

The simplest thing you can do is offer to take care of the pet for the senior yourself. This way, they can still see the cat or dog, but they don’t have to live with the pet every day and care for it. They reap the benefits of pet companionship and you have the peace of mind that the animal is in the best care. It’s a win-win for everyone, including the animal. 

You might not want to come right out and say that you’re taking the dog or cat away for good, though. Instead, mention something like how the pet needs to go to the vet and how you’re going to do it for the senior. You might have to repeat this several times, especially when your senior asks about the pet.

It can be sad and even seem cruel to take a pet away from a senior like this. However, if they have Alzheimer’s or dementia and they can no longer care for the pet, then it’s within the best interest of the animal for you to rehome them.

In certain situations, even if the senior is taking care of the pet, some animals don’t react well to the changes that dementia or Alzheimer’s can cause in a person. Keeping the cat or dog in the home at that point could put your senior in danger.  

Conclusion 

Pet therapy can lessen feelings of depression and anxiety while providing companionship for seniors going through dementia or Alzheimer’s. These pets don’t even necessarily have to be real. Robotic pets have lifelike fur and heartbeats so they feel like a true companion. 

While pet therapy animals offer countless benefits, make sure you look out for the animal’s best interest as well. If your senior isn’t caring for the cat or dog, then you must consider removing the animal from the home. 

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