Pet Therapy for Alzheimer's Disease

As any pet lover will attest, these four-legged family members provide companionship, unconditional love and acceptance, and enhance our lives in countless ways. However, pets can also play an important therapeutic role for adults with Alzheimer's disease.

Alzheimer's disease is a degenerative brain disorder. It typically begins with memory loss. Over time, cognitive impairment worsens and daily functioning skills decline. Early symptoms may include social withdrawal, depression, paranoia, and mood changes. Alzheimer's is the most common cause of dementia, especially among nursing home residences.

Edward Creagan, MD, a physician from Mayo Clinic Medical School, says if pet ownership was a medication, it would be patented, an indication of the power of animals in helping people with illnesses. Animals help counter many of the challenges Alzheimer's patients (and their caregivers) face and reduce the need for medications.

Pets can also help people with Alzheimer's...

  • Ease feelings of loneliness and buffer stress
  • Encourage participation and social interaction
  • Reduce depressive symptoms and improve cognitive functioning, including reducing adverse behavioral and psychological symptoms
  • Enjoy entertainment and find distraction from pain or infirmity

Despite the benefits of pets, factors such as age, poor eyesight, limited physical mobility, and insufficient space can make it difficult for people with Alzheimer's to keep up with the responsibilities of a pet (think shopping for food and seeking veterinary care). That's where pet therapy programs play a valuable role.

Many people with Alzheimer's live in residential care environments that may already offer pet therapy and visitation programs. The programs provide the benefits of pet companionship without the responsibility of pet care. While dogs are the most common therapy animal, any domesticated animal that's friendly, safe, social, and tolerant can provide benefits.

Pet therapy programs can be structured or unstructured. Animal Assisted Therapy pairs an animal and its handler with a client to achieve specific therapeutic goals. In many cases, pets help people simply by visiting with them.

Individuals with Alzheimer's who live at home may be able to keep pets with a little help from family members or outside organizations. For example, Pets for the Elderly Foundation helps cover fees for participating shelters for adults 60 and older who adopt a companion dog or cat. Cats may be a better option for people with Alzheimer's who are living in their own homes. They are place oriented more than people oriented, easier to care for, and less distressed by disruptions to daily routines.

If you're considering pet therapy, here are a few national organizations that offer these services.

Liesa Harte, MD, reviewed this article.



Green, Ben. "An Unusual Visitor: The Pros and Cons of Pet Therapy." Medscape Medical News. Web.

Baun, Mara M. D.N.Sc., FAAN. "Companion Animals In the Lives Of Persons With Alzheimer's
Disease." Web.

Hart, Lynette A. "The Role of Pets in Enhancing Human Well-being: Effects for Older People." Web. "Visiting Pets and Animal Assisted Therapy." Web. 12 November 2007. Web.

Snelling, Sherri. "How Caregivers Can Use Pet Therapy to Care for Their Loved One." Alzheimer's Association. Blog. 15 October 2012.

Pets for the Elderly. Web.

Beier, Maju T., Pharm.D., FASCP. "Treatment Strategies for the Behavioral Symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease: Focus on Early Pharmacologic Intervention." Pharmacotherapy 27(3) (2007): 399-411. Medscape Medical News. Web.

Angel on  a Leash. Web.

Love on a Leash. Web.