Many of us have faced harsh life moments that shake us to our core. Maybe it's watching a grandparent struggle with the foggy labyrinth that is dementia, or coming to grips with the vulnerabilities of our parents as they age. Either way, it stings. And it's in these real, raw moments that we start thinking outside the box—like, could our pets be of any help here?
Truth is, there's mounting evidence that suggests pets aren't just adorable distractions but lifelines for those wrestling with cognitive decline. Whether it's your grandma needing a sense of purpose or your dad looking for a surge of serotonin, our animal companions have got their back—and maybe, they've got yours too.
So let's dive in and explore how pets, whether it's your dog or your cat, can help in managing dementia—a condition that's as heartbreaking as it is bewildering. We're also taking a no-BS look at the safety precautions to consider if you're thinking of introducing your soulful sidekick into the life of someone who's dealing with this tough condition.
Pets are healing
Pets can be a wonderful addition to virtually anyone’s life. As long as you have the time and commitment for one, there are so many rewards that they can bring in the form of companionship and support.
In recent years, people have started to understand more about the relationships between humans and their pets, and some of the hugely positive effects that being around animals can have on people. This extends to people with a number of neurological conditions including dementia.
The role of pets in providing emotional support for dementia patients
Doctors will tell you that there are a variety of meaningful activities for dementia patients to take part in. Things that can continue to keep the brain active and help with things like cognitive function are recommended.
Pets provide two different forms of help for people with dementia. As well as being a way for them to retain a level of responsibility and purpose, pets can also provide emotional and mental health support, helping people who are struggling with this aspect of dementia, too.
The benefits of pet companionship
Of course, many of us know from experience that pets can have a great deal of benefits in our lives. This is backed up by both anecdotal evidence and modern science.
Reducing feelings of isolation
Pets can be a companion, reducing the feeling of being alone. Loneliness can be depressing and scary for anyone, but people with dementia may have an especially tough time dealing with it. Pets can help to reduce these feelings and even prompt the release of certain “happy” chemicals in the human brain, such as serotonin.
Enhancing memory recall and cognitive functions
Looking after a pet requires a fairly high level of cognitive function. This means it is a good way for people with dementia to stay sharp and keep testing cognitive functions.
Pet owners also need to remember certain things such as the basic care steps of pets. Taking them outside, feeding them, and providing fresh water are all things that play a part in the recall side of pet ownership.
Stimulating engagement and sensory experiences
Sensory experiences can be a powerful way of reducing anxiety and fear and helping people with dementia feel more grounded and secure in their lives.
This is especially true if some of these activities had been enjoyed earlier in life before they were diagnosed with dementia. This can help them to feel secure with activities they may have taken part in when owning pets before. For instance, playing with a dog in the garden.
The sensory stimulations can also include an affectionate relationship with a pet, such as stroking them or just cuddling up to them on the sofa. This can cause the release of oxytocin in the brain, which is known as a “love hormone” and triggers feelings of affection.
Increasing physical activity
Sometimes a pet can add some physical activity to the routine of somebody with dementia. This may be as simple as playing with a cat with a toy, or it could mean walking or playing with a dog.
Walking a dog is not an option for everyone with dementia, but it can be a great activity for those who are able. Some types of exercise have been linked with slowing the impact of dementia and even aiding cognitive function in those who have been diagnosed with dementia.
Considering safety measures and precautions in animal therapy
There are a lot of things to consider before getting a pet. This is true no matter what stage of life you are at and how much time you have for one. For people with dementia, it is essential to think about their capability to look after a pet, and what stage of the condition they are at.
Pets such as birds, cats, and dogs are all potential pets for those with dementia, and they all require different levels of care. Some may be more appropriate for animal therapy than others. Safety is always important, and it is a good idea to carefully consider what kind of pet is appropriate, as well as their size, and how demanding they are as pets.
How pets alleviate caregiver stress in dementia
Even if pets aren't directly involved in the care of someone with dementia, their presence can be invaluable for caregivers. Managing the emotional and physical toll of caregiving is challenging, and pets can provide much-needed emotional relief.
Caring for a loved one with dementia can significantly heighten your risk of depression and anxiety. The emotional toll of caregiving is a reality many face. In this context, pets can serve as a source of comfort and emotional relief, helping to alleviate symptoms of stress and mental exhaustion.
Their unconditional love and calming presence can help caregivers recharge emotionally, making them better equipped to provide the care their loved one needs.
The next time life throws you a curveball, remember: while pets can't solve all of life's complex problems, they can offer a unique form of comfort and support that's irreplaceable. Because sometimes, the best medicine has four paws and a tail.
Lizz Caputo is the Manager of Content Strategy at Figo, animal enthusiast, and owner of a rescued senior American Bully. Her hobbies include checking out new restaurants in her area, boxing, and petting dogs of all shapes and sizes.