Winifred and Orla on the chair

Animal companions: 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. Here we share 6 things to consider before seeking a pet for someone with dementia, and some personal experiences shared by members of our online community.

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

But there may come a time when the pet’s owner is no longer able to look after them. It’s hard to know whether keeping a pet is the right choice.

How can a person with dementia benefit from animal interactions?

There are some suggestions that animals can communicate better than humans with people with dementia. This is thought to be because animals rely more on body language than verbal communication.

'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

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

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.

Winifred and Orla on the chair

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

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

Some people with dementia, or those supporting them, may want to adopt a pet. Here are some important things to consider before seeking a new pet.

  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 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, exercise, going to the vets, cleaning up after the animal and more. It’s very important to consider the welfare of the animal.
     
  3. 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. 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 be considered and evaluated before starting any intervention.
     
  5. Would the person benefit from semi-regular interactions with an animal? This could be introduced instead of committing to pet ownership. Some people may find visits from a friend’s or family member’s pet a good compromise.
     
  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. If a ‘fake’ pet brings the same calming effects as a real pet, perhaps that’s an 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.

If the person with dementia is moving into a residential care 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 is living with their carer then they may take on increased responsibility for the pet (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.

Animals and residential care

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. They 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 help people with dementia recall memories, and could become an activity for someone 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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4 comments

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Yes it can and does....It is the best therapy there is for pet and patients

We are very fortunate that Mom's 10 yr chihuahua has been a welcomed visitor in the residential placement. Her therapy dog, of sorts.

I volunteer for a charity called Noahs Art that takes therapy animals in to Mental health units, Care homes and other places. We take dogs, rats, guinea pigs and rabbits. !

My mom has a moderate dementia, I would like to foster a dog or cat for her. She used to have dogs many years ago and I believe it will give her happiness to have a pet at home. Please let me know where I can contact pets that visits patients at home in the Miami area.

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