Man’s Best Friend: The Effects of Pet Therapy on Dementia

It has been predicted that by 2060, 98 million American adults, or one fourth of the population, will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s (Center for Disease Control, 2018). Often, the first line of treatment for patients is prescription medication which unfortunately eliminates many viable, non-pharmacological alternatives. Fortunately, non-traditional treatments, such as pet therapy, are becoming increasingly popular, and have potentially positive effects on the social and emotional well-being of Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. 

A rapidly growing field, pet therapy relies on the interaction between domesticated animals, such as cats and dogs, and chronically ill patients to help improve the mood and behavior of the patients. It has been especially compatible with the treatment of those suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia, in conjunction with pharmacological interventions. 

Pet therapy has the greatest impact on the social behaviors of Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. One study, for instance, observed the effect of therapy dogs on dementia patients at two U.S. nursing homes. The patients were given the opportunity to feed, pet, and groom the dog for an hour every day. By the end of the study, those that underwent pet therapy achieved, on average, a score that was 25% higher than their original baseline score on the Cohen-Mansfield Agitation Inventory (CMAI).  (E.P. Cherniack & A.R. Cherniack, 2014). In addition, subjects that participated in the therapy sessions demonstrated less agitation and anxiety after performing a stressful task, especially right after interacting with a pet. 

The same correlation was found in a Czech university study examining the impact of pet therapy on patients in long term care facilities. The hypothesis was that those who underwent pet therapy would display less disturbed behavior and mood related issues after interacting with dogs for 12 weeks, and the results supported this notion (Kristýna Machová, Radka Procházková, Petra Eretová, Ivona Svobodová, & Ilja Kotík). 

Pet therapy has proved helpful for patients across all backgrounds, regardless of age, gender, and type of dementia. After therapy sessions, patients were more likely to interact with one another and for longer periods of time, thereby reducing negative feelings of loneliness and social isolation (Klimova, Toman, & Kuca, 2019). These improvements are due to chemical changes in the brain in response to interacting with animals ( Beetz, Uvnäs-Moberg, Julius, & Kotrschal, 2012). In particular, endorphins such as oxycontin, prolactin and dopamine are secreted within the brain and are responsible for bringing about feelings of happiness. The happier the patients are, the more comfortable they are with reaching out to others and developing social interactions and connections. 

Apart from improvements on social behavior, pet therapy has equally beneficial effects on cognitive function. While there is no direct correlation between the use of pet therapy and the enhancement of learning ability in dementia and Alzheimer’s patients, traits such as concentration, attention, and motivation seem to be improved. (Andrea Beetz, Kerstin Uvnäs-Moberg, Henri Julius, & Kurt Kotrschal). Self-esteem may also be boosted, giving patients a sense of purpose, according to one study by the NIH. Additionally, patients may retain a sense of independence, since taking care of an animal requires responsibility and organizational skills (Antonia Pugliese & Annamaria Pugliese). 

The physical ailments of dementia patients may also be improved through pet therapy. In one particular study, patients were invited to take care of a bird. Those who cared for the bird scored much higher than controls on the Brief Symptom Inventory and the LEIPAD-II Short Version — both psychometric tests that evaluate psychological distress. The simple presence of a pet in a room also has the effect of significantly lowering blood pressure in dementia patients and increasing motivation to do more physical activities for longer periods of time (E.P. Cherniack & A.R. Cherniack). Apart from exercise, pet therapy has also led to a reduction in the usage of psychoactive medication, fewer reports of physical pain, and improved cardiovascular health in patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s (Elizabeth C Hersch & Sharon Falzgraf). Moreover, dementia patients who were prone to undereating, increased food intake by 17.2% after pet therapy sessions. ( Thompson Jr. )

Overall, pet therapy has proved largely beneficial in alleviating emotional, physical, and cognitive problems in patients suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s. The interaction between domesticated, trained animals and patients has the effect of reducing stress and agitation, nurturing healthy habits such as regular exercise, and encouraging social interaction with other people, among other things. In some cases, pet therapy can even replace pharmacological interventions in patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s. The prevalence of pet therapy is only expected to rise given the effectiveness and simplicity of this alternative treatment. 

Edited by Lesley Mun


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2 thoughts on “Man’s Best Friend: The Effects of Pet Therapy on Dementia

  1. Excellent article!
    Well written and thought provoking!
    Nursing homes and dementia care providing organizations may want to implement simple measures to make use of the benefits of pet therapy.

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