Ask any pet owner, and they will concur that nothing quite compares to snuggling up with a furry friend at the end of a hard day. It’s no secret that pets can offer stability and comfort as we navigate the rollercoaster of life.

When a senior has Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, symptoms like anxiety, depression, restlessness, agitation, and aggression can become overwhelming for both them and their family caregivers.

In 2024, memory care and assisted living communities increasingly recognize the potentially life-changing benefits of complementary therapies. Pet therapy is one of the most promising and scientifically backed.

What to Expect in a Pet Therapy Session

Pet therapy allows seniors to interact with animals positively and safely. Trained animal handlers guide these interactions to enhance the experience for both the person and the animal. Dogs are the most frequently used animals in pet therapy. Still, other animals like horses, cats, guinea pigs, rabbits, or even fish can be excellent candidates, too. Pet therapy is often a delightful activity for those in residential senior care who always had pets at home.

Is Pet Therapy Safe for Seniors with Alzheimer’s?

Family caregivers may have concerns about how safe pet therapy is for their loved one in memory care or assisted living or whether the animals are content in this setting. When a trusted provider delivers pet therapy, proper precautions are put into place to protect the animals and the individuals receiving the treatment.

Handlers are expertly trained, and animals are assessed to ensure they’re suitable for pet therapy. With the correct diligence and training, pet therapy is typically a safe and positive experience for seniors, handlers, and animals.

It’s worth noting that, as with most therapies, pet therapy isn’t suitable for everyone. As well as those who don’t like animals, seniors with a weak immune system or specific allergies may not be well matched. In residential senior care, professional and family caregivers, pet therapy providers, and seniors will collaborate to decide the right fit.

Critical Benefits of Pet Therapy for Seniors with Dementia

Pet therapy for seniors with Alzheimer’s and dementia has been well-researched. Multiple studies have found it to have a positive effect on everything from mood and anxiety to social interaction, behavior, and even nutritional intake and physical activity. Here are just a few of the most significant benefits.

Improving Mood and Alleviating Anxiety

Attend a single pet therapy session, and its mood-boosting benefits will be clear, but there’s research to back this up, too. A review by Klimova, Toman, and Kuca (2019) found that dementia patients typically appear relaxed, calm, and content during dog therapy sessions, which subsequently leads to reductions in anxiety, agitation, and depression. Another study by Krüger et al. (2022) found that visits from trained dogs and their owners significantly reduced agitation in a group of seniors with dementia in a geropsychiatric ward.

Promoting Positive Social Interaction

Pet therapy can be an excellent way to help more introverted seniors benefit from social interaction – both with the animal and with peers and animal handlers. After all, animals are a natural conversation starter, and their effects in reducing anxiety may also help seniors feel more open to social engagement. While the impact of pet therapy on social interaction has not yet been widely researched, a pilot study by Richeson (2002) did find that the social interaction of seniors with dementia significantly increased after three weeks of animal-assisted therapy.

Increasing Physical Activity

Petting animals is a physical activity that encourages movement and may improve motor skills. For seniors with Alzheimer’s, keeping moving in small ways can benefit health, skill, and agility. A review of 32 studies by Yakimicki et al. (2018) found that animal-assisted therapies and interventions strongly affected physical activity levels among seniors with dementia.

Reducing Challenging Behaviors

Challenging behavior is typical among seniors with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, especially in the later stages of these conditions. When caring for a person with Alzheimer’s, it’s crucial to note that challenging behaviors always have a cause, whether this be stress, agitation, anxiety, medications, pain, loneliness, or something else.

Addressing the root cause of challenging behavior is critical to reducing it. Therefore, pet therapy’s ability to ease agitation, depression, and anxiety may well have a positive secondary effect on behavior. Klimova, Toman, and Kuca’s (2019) review found that dog therapy significantly reduced aggression in dementia patients.

Memory Care at Alpine View Lodge Assisted Living

As a leading memory care provider in San Diego County, Alpine View Lodge offers a range of engaging activities tailored to enhance the lives of seniors with conditions like Alzheimer’s. Alongside pet therapy, we also manage activities, including arts and crafts, music, educational and exercise classes, family events, and movie nights to help residents feel fulfilled, motivated, and able to maintain a positive social life.

Our activities provide engagement for residents at every stage of their condition, and trained caregivers provide tailored support for seniors to get the most from their favorite hobbies. To visit us and see our exciting range of activities in person, give us a call and schedule a tour today.