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!

13 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.

  • 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?

  • 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!

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