Brain Health: What to Know About Pet Ownership and Dementia

by Maryanne Edmundson, Ph. D., L.P.

Pets are integral to many people’s lives, but what do you need to consider when your life also begins to include dementia? In general, research has shown that older adults who own pets are likely to have better cardiovascular health (partly related to increased physical activity, such as dog walking), recover faster from mental stress, have lower rates of depression, anxiety, and loneliness, and have better quality of life. Pet owners may also feel a sense of community either through sharing the identity of pet ownership (think of how you feel when meeting other “cat people” or “dog people”) or because having a pet may help them to strike up a conversation.

All of these general benefits hold true for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, whether the animal in question is their pet or part of a pet therapy program – these potential benefits are particularly important because people with dementia may be at risk for developing depression, anxiety, social withdrawal, and loneliness. Plus, studies indicate that people with dementia who have a pet or are involved in pet therapy have lower rates of apathy, agitation, and aggression, and increased feelings of relaxation. Individuals in long-term care also may have general improvement in their social interactions when pet therapies are utilized. Even adding an aquarium to a long-term care center’s dining room may increase how frequently residents will go to the dining room and how much they eat. Having a pet can also help reduce caregivers’ stress levels.

However, there are several risks associated with pet ownership to be aware of. A big concern for older adults can be the increase in risk of falls and other injuries. Even the best-behaved pet can sometimes accidentally get underfoot. Individuals with dementia are also more prone to become upset when tired or overstimulated – you may find it most effective to have animal-related activities early in the day and/or for short periods. When choosing a pet for an older adult and/or someone with dementia, you may consider pets that are less hyper, have calmer temperaments, and are already well-trained (e.g., no jumping or excessive barking). For anyone in a long-term care facility, careful planning and coordination with staff is essential for any animal-related activity. Also, the death of a pet can be particularly difficult when people have memory-related dementias because they may constantly be missing their furry companion yet may not be capable of holding onto the memory that their pet has died. While family and caregivers may want to remind their loved one that their faithful companion has died, if their loved one will not be able to remember this reminder, then it tends to be more helpful to redirect your loved one’s attention to something else instead. Finally, individuals with dementia may have difficulty caring for themselves, let alone a pet. When considering long-term care options for your loved one with dementia, you should consider whether facilities have pet-care assistance options or if a family member can provide general pet care but bring their loved one’s pet to the long-term care facility for visits.

Pet ownership is not always feasible for people with dementia – either they may not have an option for someone to care for their pet or they may live in a facility that cannot accommodate animals. Technological advances have been made in robotic pets that appear to provide some of the same benefits of pet ownership (such as lowering depression and agitation) yet do not require the same level of care that a live pet would. Some of the fanciest varieties have realistic looks and the ability to recognize your loved one’s face and respond to their behavior patterns, but may be prohibitively expensive. Some companies and programs (e.g., Ageless Innovation’s “Joy for All”) have less realistic looking yet more affordable robotic companions.

If you have questions about pet ownership for your loved one who has cognitive difficulties and/or dementia, consult with your local neuropsychologist.

Dr. Maryanne Edmundson is a clinical neuropsychologist at Pinehurst Neuropsychology Brain & Memory Clinic. She can be reached at 910-420-8041 or through the website at www.pinehurstneuropsychology.com.