Amazing Animals: How Pet Therapy Can Help People With Dementia | Avalon Memory Care

Amazing Animals: How Pet Therapy Can Help People With Dementia

After two decades of research, we know the facts: Pet therapy benefits those living with dementia in more ways than one. Many smaller studies and one large-scale study in 2019 have proven that pet therapy has significant benefits for patients with dementia.


How can pet therapy help?

Research suggests that when our dogs look into our eyes, it’s their way of hugging us. Science has proven that when this happens, both human and canine companion receive a surge of the hormone oxytocin, which is known for nurturing, developing lasting bonds, and expressing love.

Therapaws Director, Luke Berman, says, “An animal…it just kind of gets something out of people that a human can’t always do…It’s something about the fact that an animal, a dog, is non-judgmental, happy to see everyone, makes people happy, and that gets someone into a looser state, a happier state where they’re more likely to trigger an older memory and then be happy to talk to a person.”


Increased Interaction

Animal companionship gives us joy and comfort, but it also encourages withdrawn dementia patients to interact with their environment. Perhaps it’s because animals communicate non-verbally and offer affection without demands. Who can resist a furry friend who wants to play or needs a pat? Therapy dogs know that putting their heads on someone’s knee will lead to lots of attention and petting.


Calmer Days. If you have a pet, you know that (usually) they’re a source of calm. A 2019 study showed that pet therapy triggers a patient’s automatic relaxation response, which reduces rates of anxiety and agitation. Patients in the study had lower stress hormones and lower blood pressure during their pet therapy sessions.

Pets also help alleviate some symptoms of depression and boost overall moods. This is important, especially when many with dementia suffer from worsening depressive states.


Increased overall memory recall: Some patients in the 2019 study had improved short-term memory. Some recalled having pets in the past, a form of nostalgia therapy. Also referred to as “reminiscence therapy,” sensory memories are explored, including haptic memory, which is associated with touch and tactile experiences. Stroking an animal’s soft fur can stir memories from decades before with childhood pets they adored.


Fewer Behavior Issues

In 2002, researchers found a significant decrease in behavioral issues like agitation and aggression after adding a full-time resident dog to a memory care center. A 2019 study found the same result and a reduction of sundowner’s behavior (agitation and distress that occurs near nightfall) when people were offered pet therapy.


Better Nutrition and Weight

Even fish aquariums benefit people in memory care communities. In 2002 Purdue University researchers found an increase in nutritional intake and an average 1.65-pound weight gain among the patients who enjoyed fish aquariums in the dining area.


More activity

Patients who interact with pets are more likely to move and get more activity during the day. Throwing a ball, taking a short walk, or playing with a toy gets patients moving and active. Even for seniors who aren’t able to move around as often, there are unique, indoor critters that can brighten a person’s week and break up the monotony. Hermit crabs are fascinating creatures to observe and instigate imagination. Anyone can sit by a terrarium and peacefully enjoy the slow-moving crustaceans and the charming click-clack of their shells with each tiny step. It’s very soothing for anyone, including those with dementia.

Neighborhood birds have also proven to be another easy way to incorporate animals into your senior’s world. Taking up bird-watching is enjoyable whether outside sneaking a few French fries over to the sparrows or sitting by a sunny window and spotting the local blue jay bossing around its winged buddies.


Types of Animals Incorporated Into Pet Therapy

Many types of animals and critters are part of pet therapy. Especially with dementia patients who love animals, it doesn’t really matter what type of animal is presented (unless there are those with allergies). There’s just something about these innocent, wide-eyed creatures that steal the hearts of people from all walks of life. Here are some common animals that dementia patients might interact with:

  • Dogs
  • Cats
  • Fish
  • Horses and ponies
  • Llamas
  • Farm animals, like baby goats, lambs, and chicks
  • Bunnies
  • Birds
  • Small reptiles
  • Guinea pigs
  • Hamsters
  • Hermit crabs
  • Life-like stuffed animals, i.e., soft and fluffy faux puppies or kittens


Where can I see pet therapy in action? 

Check out some of these online videos of pets working their fur magic on those needing that extra bit of love and support.

  • Gael is a gorgeous Golden Retriever working in a hospital setting and putting smiles on faces of all ages.
  • Marley is a London-based beautiful boy whose gentle soul brings out old memories for dementia patients. Some even remember Marley’s name, which is a big step for many of the residents. Keep your tissues close by!
  • For seniors who have allergies or can’t care for a live pet on their own, robotic pets also bring great joy. Jennie the robotic pup is a fantastic companion for many elders with dementia.
  • This drive-thru pet therapy program gave quarantined seniors a safe, closeup view of horses, dogs, and llamas. They provide many animal education and therapy services, including some virtual appointments.
  • This video combines two of the happiest things—music and puppies! When the therapy animals have gone home for the day, sharing video clips of fur cuties is the next best smile-maker.


Last but not least, there’s Nala, a teacup poodle who intuitively just knows who needs extra love. Watch her roam the hospital she visits each day, greeting patients like a cuddly angel on all fours.

We at Avalon Memory Care know firsthand how helpful pet therapy can be. Visiting puppy therapy is part of our community, and our furry visitors are very popular with everyone here. We are lucky to work with terrific pet therapists and carefully selected animals who are gentle and calm. Not surprisingly, our guest puppies are always the highlight of the day.

Pet therapy is only one of the numerous elements of high-quality care at Avalon Memory Care in Dallas, Arlington, and Houston. Our Alzheimer’s support professionals go above and beyond to maintain an unsurpassed level of care, safety, and well-being for each of our residents. When it is time to look for assisted living choices for your loved one, call us at (972) 364-4755.

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