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I sometimes take for granted how wonderful it is to be met at the door after a busy, tiring day by a 125 pound waging, smiling, lovable Great Dane; my sweet Edelweiss thinks I’m the best thing since sliced bread! The excited licks on my hand to say hello and big healthy sniffs to determine where I’ve been, while dancing around my legs, are signs that let me know she loves me unconditionally. Her welcome home routine never changes and I can’t help but smile back, relax, and return her attention and affection. Pets provide amazing benefits to humans regardless of age, gender, race, health, and/or socioeconomic status.

The number of people developing dementia steadily increases as baby boomers age and live longer. Programs and services designed to meet the growing needs of this population are crucial. Nearly 8 out of 10 individuals with dementia will exhibit agitation or aggressive behavior during the course of their illness. Symptoms are generally treated with antidepressants, mood stabilizers, anxiolytics, hypnotics, antipsychotics, or cholinesterase inhibitors; some have limited effects on behavior and may have harmful side effects, including higher risk for mortality. The use of non-pharmaceutical strategies, such as art, music, reminiscing, doll, aroma, and pet therapies have been proven safe, effective, and simple to use.

Dogs have traditionally been used to assist the blind and disabled; there is a growing body of research supporting the positive role a pet can play in the life of someone with dementia. A large research study was conducted in Sweden to evaluate the benefits of dog-assisted intervention on negative behaviors associated with dementia for ten sessions over a six month period. Indications for dog-assisted intervention included increased anxiety, lack of participation in activities, communication problems leading to loss of or reduced ability to engage in social interaction, reduced physical abilities or unwillingness to participate, low mood, and behavioral and/or psychological symptoms. The results were less physical aggression and fewer episodes of agitation among those who participated in the dog-assisted activities. Sense of purpose, self-confidence, wellbeing, dignity, and respect are components of quality of life, and this study produced valuable data to suggest dog-assisted therapy could, in fact, increase a person’s self-esteem. More research is needed for specific situations.

I mention this study to illustrate the importance of considering various non-pharmaceutical solutions to problems associated with dementia. Maybe having a pet is a good idea for your situation. Be sure to consider the pros and cons!

A pet:
• Can provide the opportunity for the person with dementia to have a daily ‘job’—walking the dog (supervised, of course) and/or feeding it (depending on abilities), which gives the person a sense of purpose and accomplishment; particularly for those in the early stages of dementia. For those who cannot care for a pet, having a cat or dog sit on their lap to pet may evoke positive response/mood.
• Can reintroduce fun to the person’s life—watching a pet play catch or chew a toy can bring smiles and contentment.
• Can provide sensory stimulation. A dog or cat gives comfort to people with anxiety and stress.
• Supports opportunities for socialization: the person can talk about their pet, learn about the breed from books or internet, and share funny stories with children.
• Provides a great excuse to go outside—walking the dog (even around the backyard) provides exercise for the individual and his/her pet. Sensory stimulation (smelling flowers, seeing the sky, hearing the lawn mower) and receiving natural Vitamin D from the sun are all additional benefits.
• Can help improve eating habits of the person with dementia.

Tips for finding the “right” pet
• Don’t get a pet that requires more maintenance than the person with dementia can provide (and remember, if they can’t do it you or an in-home worker will need to).
• Don’t get a frisky, untrained pet because they will most likely cause anxiety and stress–know the personality and strengths of the pet before taking it home.
• Consider the size of the pet when full grown; small breed dogs can get underfoot and large breeds may intimidate or be too strong for a person with dementia. Use caution! And Don’t get an animal the person fears or dislikes.
• Remember appropriate care for pets: vet visits, immunizations, and infection control (clean animal regularly, feed only dog food, etc.).
• Ask questions and feel comfortable with your decision to have a pet.

**OR Find a program in your area that will bring a pet to the person with dementia on a regular basis (instead of getting your own). For more information visit

Woof, woof!!

~Tamara Nixon, BS, CHES

Pets and Dementia