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The Benefits of Pet Therapy for Seniors with Dementia 

Few things top the unconditional love and affection of a beloved pet — unless that pet is also a source of therapeutic relief.

Pet therapy builds on the natural comfort that comes from engaging with animals, taking those benefits even further to help seniors manage stress, encourage movement and promote other aspects of wellness.

What is Pet Therapy?

Much like the companion animals who soothe and bring joy to their owners, therapy animals improve the lives of those who interact with them. The main difference is, animals used in pet therapy undergo intensive training for obedience, socialization and, in some cases, specialized therapeutic skills.

Pet therapy typically falls into one of three categories:

  • In ownership therapy, a senior owns the pet and provides for its ongoing care. This type of therapy is best for active adults who are up to the responsibility of caring for another living being.
  • As the name suggests, visitation therapy involves animals that visit a senior or group of seniors in their home living environment. Another person or organization is responsible for the animal’s ongoing care.
  • A more intensive form of pet therapy is animal-assisted therapy, in which animals are specially trained to participate in specific rehabilitative or therapeutic exercises, such as improving physical abilities.

What are the Benefits of Pet Therapy for Seniors?

It’s no surprise that combating loneliness is a major benefit of pet therapy for seniors, but there are many other benefits as well. Pet therapy can help with other emotional needs, such as reducing anxiety and depression. Pets can even help improve self-esteem or confidence. For example, a senior who is feeling frustrated by certain limitations can feel a sense of accomplishment and pride after successfully feeding, grooming or playing with a pet.

In the area of mental health, pets can encourage socialization among seniors and give pet owners a sense of purpose. Anticipating and planning for a pet’s care and needs is also a practical way to promote cognitive function.

Pet therapy also offers physical benefits. Studies show interacting with pets contributes to lower blood pressure. Pet owners are also more likely to get exercise or be more mobile due to the physical demands of caring for a pet.

How can Pet Therapy Help People  with Dementia?

Several of the emotional benefits of pet therapy are particularly beneficial for people with dementia, who are at elevated risk for developing depression and commonly experience symptoms of moodiness and agitation. Researchers have also shown that having a pet in a memory care community positively affects resident behavior, and some research suggests the advantages are greatest when a dog lives within the community (as opposed to visiting).

While a great deal of research focuses on the benefits of four-legged animals, one study involving fish also offered some interesting insight on pet therapy for dementia patients. People with dementia who were exposed to aquariums over a period of several weeks not only showed lower levels of agitation, but they also demonstrated a notable increase in food intake, reducing their reliance on supplements for nutrition.

Toddy’s Touch for People with Dementia

Deloris “Toddy” Pinkerton’s experience with Alzheimer’s disease inspired her son to create Heritage Senior Living, a collection of senior living communities in Wisconsin where older adults experiencing dementia symptoms could receive heartfelt, personalized care.

Toddy’s Touch — the name for the communities’ multidisciplinary memory care approach — uses many different kinds of activities and therapies to enrich and enhance lives. From pet therapy and musical memory programs to multisensory rooms and Memory Cafés, our thoughtful approach allows residents to engage with their surroundings and thrive.

Contact us to learn more about our memory care services and how we can offer your loved one with dementia a comforting, enriching lifestyle.