Winifred and Orla on the chair

Can caring for a pet help a person with dementia?

Pets can give people with dementia feelings of unconditional love. But getting a new pet isn’t a decision to be made lightly. There are lots of things to consider before seeking a pet for someone with dementia.

People with dementia can find caring for an animal to be a source of support and comfort. A person living with dementia can also benefit from the companionship and friendship from keeping a pet, and caring for the pet may also provide a sense of purpose. 

How can a person with dementia benefit from keeping a pet?

Animal-assisted interventions can improve self-esteem and confidence in people with dementia. It can also promote quality of life and encourage independence.

If a person with dementia is having trouble communicating with others or having conversations, looking after a pet may help them to stay engaged and involved.  

'I believe that having a pet has helped [my other half] maintain some empathy for another living being. Maybe he's lost that depth of understanding for me, but he really has an honest loving connection with her and that is really worth keeping.’

Dementia Talking Point community member, Lawson58

Visits from an animal can be an energetic experience or an exciting part of a person’s day. Animals can be a wonderful source of love and laughter for people with dementia. 

Winifred and Orla on the chair

Winifred and Orla enjoy each other's company. Learn about their special friendship.

6 things to consider before getting a pet for a person with dementia

1. Does the person have the mental capacity to decide whether they want a pet? 

In order to make this decision, they will need to understand the level of commitment and responsibility involved. 

2. Will the person be able to meet the needs of the animal?  

Cats and dogs can live for many years and require daily care and attention. This will include feeding and hydrating, exercise, going to the vet, cleaning up after the animal, bathing or grooming them, and more. It’s very important to consider the welfare of the animal. 

3. Have you thought about where you will get the pet from?

Keep in mind that some breeders, rescue centres, or pet shops may not be willing to sell a pet to a person with dementia. Sellers may be hesitant if they feel the person may be unable to properly look after the pet.

4. Have you considered the feelings of the person with dementia before getting a pet? 

Not all people with dementia (and those supporting them) will want to interact with animals. Not everyone will enjoy it, either. Some people may be afraid of animals, have allergies or medical conditions that could be aggravated by the presence of animals. Individual and cultural differences in the acceptance of animals should also be considered before getting a pet. 

5. Would the person benefit from semi-regular interactions with an animal? 

This could be introduced instead of committing to full pet ownership. Some people may find visits from a friend’s or family member’s pet a good compromise. Pet cafes might also be a good option. 

6. Have you considered purchasing a robotic pet or cuddly toy instead of a living animal? 

Many people with dementia benefit from comforting dolls or teddies, or interacting with lifelike robotic animals.

Some studies have shown that a ‘fake’ pet can bring many of the same calming effects as a real pet, so this might be a good option to explore first.

'Mum is now in a care home and a large collection of cuddly toys fulfil the furry animal role.

A Dementia Talking Point community member.

What happens if a person with dementia can no longer care for their pet?

It is important for people with dementia (and those supporting them) to think about what might happen to their pet if they are no longer able to look after it.

Animal welfare should always be considered and managed appropriately and responsibly. 

If the person with dementia is moving into a residential care or sheltered housing setting, they may not be able to take their pet with them. It is a good idea to speak to the accommodation or home management about this to make sure. 

There may be a family member or friend who is able and willing to take responsibility for the pet.

If the person with dementia has been living with their carer, then they may take on increased responsibility for the pet if the person moves into residential care (although it is important that they are happy and able to look after the pet). 

Winifred and Orla

Winifred likes spending time with Orla the dementia-friendly dog.

Pets and care homes

Some care homes allow interactions and activities involving carefully selected animals. 

The animals and their owners, who are often volunteers, might make regular visits to care homes. The animals will often be breeds of animals with a calm or gentle temperament. This is often known as ‘pet therapy’. 

There could also be ‘residential programmes’ in place at the care home. These might allow ongoing interactions between animals and people living in care. For example, there could be a resident cat or fish tank permanently within a care home.  

If a person with dementia previously owned a pet, these animal interactions could help with reminiscence. Visits from animals may evoke pleasant memories and become an activity for the person with dementia to look forward to. 

'Walking a dog is a great introduction to many like-minded people and has encouraged mum to be more social.'

Dementia Talking Point community member, Sam Luvit.

Join the conversation

Our online community, Dementia Talking Point, provides a platform for people affected by the condition to share their experiences. Here's an open thread about pet ownership and the challenges and benefits it may or may not bring.

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