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!

27 thoughts on “Are pets a good idea for people with Alzheimer’s?

  • Catherine

    My father-in-law is suffering from mild dementia and my mother-in-law is the primary caregiver. She does not need the additional expense or work involved with a pet such as feeding, exercise, picking up litter, trips to veterinarian. Her hands are full just caring for her husband. My sister-in-law has two dogs and when we take him to her house for a visit, he has no interest in holding or petting the dogs. Some people compare pets to babies because both are NOT self-sufficient and require work and commitment.

    • lisa

      no. pets are not a good idea, and if your parent already has a pet find a good home for it. It isnt fair for the pet. they may not get fed, they pick up on stress too.

      • lisa

        thank you for your excellent answer. My mom has dementia/alzheimers and her pets are acting strange. I am always worried about her under or overfeeding them and it takes a great deal of effort and time to check on them. my mom refuses to give up her 2 cats and one dog to a loving home.

      • Sandy

        My dad adores his 3 dogs, but he strongly insists on overfeeding them and feeds them inappropriate human food, no matter our arguments, because… well… we all know how well reasoning with an Alzheimer’s usually goes.
        But to take the dogs away from him – wow, that would crush him. As lifelong animal lovers, our family is struggling to find a solution.

    • Tierney Wood

      My mom has Alzheimer’s and drives us crazy about feeding the dogs. If the dogs are in the kitchen they must be hungry. But mom, we fed them a half hour ago. Well, they must still be hungry (as she goes to the pantry to get more dog food). Or, the dogs have been fed so many times that they won’t eat, so she says they don’t like that food and we should get a different one. So we do, and the dogs eat it because it’s new, or maybe they don’t because they’re still full! Then we play the game all over again. The walks get out of hand too because she forgets when they were walked last and she gets angry saying that apparently she’s the only one capable of walking the dogs because no one else does. But we don’t because she walks them so much already, they really only need one or two good walks a day because they have outside access all day. But with mom, they get anywhere from 3 to 6 walks. Yes, the walks are good for everyone if they were more brisk, but they just mosey, and the verbal abuse we all get when she makes us feel bad, just isn’t worth it. I love my dog and living here with her has made my dog seriously obese. Very sad. I say bring a dog to visit if the interest is there, but their neediness can become uncomfortable for the dog. Like my mom won’t go to bed without the dog, but when the dog doesn’t want to go because other people are up she gets upset and the dog senses it and runs away from her making it worse.

      • Mary Grafton

        We have similar. Mum and her dachshund have lived with us for 3 yrs. I’ve taken control of the food. I take the dog out during meals so she can’t feed him and weigh the dog weekly and the food, which he gets twice a day and that’s it, the only snacks I give her are fruit, chocolate and nuts which she doesn’t give the dog. Any biscuits/ cake I give when the dog is out. It’s a tiny dachshund, who’s had back surgery from getting too fat. I just say – food is my responsibility, stroking him is yours. I don’t like dogs! But I can see the benefit for her. Fortunately she not mobile enough to walk him- though she may try, I head her off at the door – ‘he’s been out mum’, and I wee him breakfast, lunch, tea and bed. I give her notes ‘Paws has had his lunch’ etc. Fortunately she is fairly trusting of what I say. ‘I don’t starve dogs mum! He gets what he needs, not what he wants- he’s greedy’ it’s like a record on repeat.

      • Sandy

        We identify with much of your post.
        We also have the issue of having to confiscate any flea powders we find at Dad’s, as he’ll powder the same dog twice in 2 minutes. (We now take the dogs to the vet’s for all care & oral flea/tick/heartworm meds.)

  • Am Ma

    First, off NEVER give an animal as a gift to ANYONE. An animal is a living being and not an entertainment piece. Consider an animal to be like a child. That animal will become a part of a household.
    Second, ASK the caregiver first if she/he wants the additional responsibility of an animal. They are probably going to be the person that is going to take sole care of the pet. Do they have the time? Do they have the money? Do they even want a pet?
    Third, consider a therapy animal. This kind of animal can come and visit without living in the house.

  • todd spaans

    Hi , Me and my Oldest Brother are ,at the point ,that we think ,that we need help , to care for our parents,
    My Mother constantly forgets ,daily things ,& weekly things.
    We are concerned that She will forget his medication, or food ,such as lunch , as she is not hungry , and may forget ,my fathers Medication as well…

  • Lucy

    My mum has moderate dementia and iam her full time carer.
    Mum is always on the go and it is really hard to get her to relax and sit down especially in the afternoons/ evenings when sundowning effects her anxiety levels.
    It had been the same every single day for a long time , walking aroun the house , in and out of rooms for 5 hours at a time-horrible as a caregiver to have to put up with and no reasoning helps.
    We recently got an adult burmese cat who has the sweetest nature and loves nothing more than to sleep on your lap.
    The change in mum is complete turn around.

  • Lucy

    Mum now sits with the cat on her lap for hours at a time.
    And when they are not sitting together mum is looking for her and talking to her.
    The cat adores mum and even sleeps in her bed!
    It has been the single most beneficial change I have made for mum in the last 3 years.
    Burmese are great as they live being with people and will sit nicely into your routine- highly recommended !

  • Judy

    My mother is 85 and her Dementia/Alzheimer’s has been steadily taking her away. As her sole care giver the stress is indescribable.
    As my brothers and I were growing up, she was NEVER a dog person. Although we kids had dogs, she never would have anything to do with them. About 1 1/2 years ago a neighbor showed up with a stray long haired dachshund that was going to the animal shelter is he didn’t find the owner. Little Rocky has been with us ever since and he never leaves my Mom’s side. She now dotes on him and they are best pals!! Her peace with him is priceless.

  • Elizabeth T

    I was my Mom’s sole caregiver throughout her battle with Alzheimer’s, a period of over ten years. While I believe there are benefits to having a pet in the home, I can honestly say that the extra burden of having to care for one is something that needs serious consideration. As the disease progresses, the care-giving can easily become overwhelming, especially for those of us who have no outside assistance available. If you are considering bringing a pet into the equation, please do so only after some deep reflection as to whether or not you are up to the task.

  • Karen Pastore

    I found it a nightmare with my mothers dog. Although my mother loved the dog, she was not capable of caring for her, and it became one more thing I was trying to deal with. my mother was incontinent and perhaps from. Her odor, so,did the dog. She would take,the dog out bend down to attach the lead, and not remember that she was putting the dog out, she’d think she was taking the dog in, so the poor dog would come back in the house and urinate on the floor. I was beside myself !!

  • Karen moon

    My Dad has Dementia/// mom throws some of his actions and doings as being hateful///// at times I can see it’s him but on the other the Dementia—-she knows what he can or can not do so why go there knowing what you’re going to get (nothing ) so she’ll get mad at him and at times cuss at him. Trying to make her learn that there times he cant’t do what you have asked him too—when will she learn and stop being so hateful. We’ve been to some support group classes and many have told her what to do and not to do– I think she likes people to feel sorry for herself at times,

  • Peggy Coffey

    I am the caregiver of my father, who lives with us. I also have 2 Weimaraners who adore him. We go for walks every day and he helps me feed them and will brush their short hair. His doctors are amazed that his dementia has not gotten progressively worse over 10 years and I have told them it’s because of my dogs. As big as they are, they are very gentle with him and they never leave his side. As horrible as this disease is, they help me every day. I wish I had them when my mother was diagnosed with Alzeheimers.

  • 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?

    • lis

      please take some time to find a good home for this poor little pet of your moms. I understand how hard it is as my mom has the same, but the animals really do suffer.

  • 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….

  • 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!

  • Gina

    My mother-in-law has Alzheimer’s and seems to be getting very agitated with her Chihuahua lately. She slapped her once and recently she picked her up and dropped her she was sitting on the couch when this happened so the dog was dropped probably 3 foot I know she didn’t purposely mean to do it but she did because she was agitated with the dog. Is it time to Find the dog another home?

  • Lois

    I am the care giver for my mother in law. My late father in law and mother in law got a yorkiepoo 9 years ago. She (the dog) was never well behaved and never properly house trained. The dog is driving me crazy and I am so torn between the good things about having the dog (companionship, walking the dog, etc) with getting rid of the dog because of the extra work. Recently, I’ve noticed my MIL ‘spanking’ the dog. The dog does not appear to be harmed (no crying out or yelping) yet I am concerned that the dog needs to be rehomed for its own well being. It makes me sad as I think when the dog is gone, my MIL won’t be willing to walk outdoors and will be very lonely especially as the disease progresses and she loses language skills.

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