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Expert Blog

Are pets a good idea for people with Alzheimer's?

February 17, 2012
Question: I’m thinking about getting a small pet for my Mom and Dad. Mom is the primary caregiver for my Dad with Alzheimer’s disease and I think a friendly and loving animal might boost their spirits. What do you think?

A friendly dog or cat can be a magical addition to any family. Pets offer unconditional love, help fight depression, and give us a sense of purpose. Pets can be a “lifesaver” for families coping with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia.

For the person with dementia, animals:

  • Offer affection and “unconditional love.” It’s amazing how a cat on the lap or a friendly dog evokes a smile and positive response.
  • Provide an opportunity for meaningful chores. Your Mom can ask your Dad to take charge of the daily walk or be responsible for grooming the pet (with some supervision). Having a daily “job” gives your father a sense of purpose and a sense of accomplishment when the chore is accomplished.
  • Introduce fun into your life. When your father watches the cat leap into the air to catch a feather, chase a ball or meow at a bird through the window it brings back the often lost sense of fun. This joyful environment will help your mother too.
  • Provide sensory stimulation. As your dad’s Alzheimer’s disease advances, it will become more and more important for him to get sensory stimulation. Having an animal in his lap for him to pet, or to be by his side provides comfort and may even reduce agitation and anxiety. One caregiver told me that she was able to get her husband off his anti-anxiety medication after she got him a friendly dog.
  • Support opportunities for socialization. You dad may enjoy talking about the pet, learning information about the breed or animal from books or the Internet and discussing the pet’s personality. Pets lead to a good opportunity for fun with young children as well, since children are often fascinated by the exploits of animals.
  • Offer an excuse to get outside. I find that persons with dementia and many other elders spend most of their time indoors. Walking the dog provides for an excuse to get outside. Being outside gives your Dad (and Mom) sensory stimulation (the smell of fresh flowers, the sound a lawns being mowed and the sight of flowers and trees). Being out of doors also provides us with natural Vitamin D, something we all need.

While having a pet provides for many benefits, use common sense to assess whether your parents are able to care for the pet. Your parents can get help; most in-home workers will do simple pet chores or walks. Also, a growing number of senior residential care programs allow a well behaved pet.

You may find a “lower maintenance” pet more appropriate like a fish aquarium or birds. They can also provide interest and fascination without quite as much work. If this is too much, see if a friendly neighbor or local pet therapy group is available to drop by with their animal to visit dad so that he can have the best of both worlds — time with friendly and life-affirming animals without all the work!

Thoughts and stories from others

  1. February 27, 2017 at 03:34 am
    Posted by Teresa Mihaylov

    I'm dealing with a similar situation with the Alzheimer's patient I'm caring for. She is dumping all the cat litter out and stacks the lid and bottom together. This has occurred a number of times. She does pretty good keeping food and water for the cat. She really really loves her cat so I'm just dealing with the litter thing. But I go just every other day so I'm wondering when it's time to take the cat away. Anyone ever deal with this issue? Your advice would be very helpful. Thanks!
  2. December 5, 2016 at 08:43 pm
    Posted by sandra

    we lost our golden retriever two days ago.... she was a companion to my husband who has dementia... is it a good idea to broach the subject of a new dog in a few weeks or months....
  3. March 24, 2016 at 01:01 pm
    Posted by Dianne

    My Mom lives in assisted living facility with her cat. We have found on many occasions that the cat has been without any water. Thus we have purchased the water dispensers in order to provide water for the cat. However, my Mom takes the bottle apart, loses parts and then the cat is without water again. Mom no longer scoops the litter box and has on multiple occasions thrown the whole box away. Then she will pour litter on the floor for the cat to use there. She loves the cat but I don't want the cat suffer or hurt my Mom taking the cat. What do I do?

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