How Therapy Animals Help Those Living with Dementia

A visit from a friendly dog or cat does more than simply brighten the day of someone living with dementia. It can play a key role in maintaining better health.

8:00 AM

Author | Renee Gadwa, M.B.A.

When I worked in long-term care facilities with those on their dementia journey, I saw the benefits of animal-assisted pet therapy firsthand.

People living with dementia often feel isolated, depressed and without purpose. Yet my coworkers and I saw the residents experience so much joy simply by having animals around — to pet, to groom, to feed or to share a lap.

Some residents saw reduced stress and anxiety or improved social skills. Others were able to reduce their medications as a result of the happiness brought on by the pets that either lived in or visited our facilities.

Although experiences may vary, one thing is for certain: quality time with four-legged friends does far more than make us feel good.

Pets offer health benefits

There is evidence that just 15 minutes of bonding with an animal sets off a chemical chain reaction in the brain that lowers levels of cortisol (our "fight or flight" hormone) and increases levels of serotonin (our "feel-good" hormone).

Such positive and immediate changes in hormone levels can help lower one's heart rate, blood pressure and stress levels. And if interaction with pets is a regular occurrence, we might ultimately see lower cholesterol levels, fewer incidents of depression and even protection against heart disease.

Mobile groups can help

Many hospitals and long-term care communities have an agreement with organizations such as Therapaws or Pet-A-Pet to conduct regular visits.

While dogs are usually the "therapists," I have also seen patients delighted by cats, rabbits and gerbils.

Some facilities even have a resident cat, dog or bird on-site to create good feelings and a homelike atmosphere.

Your own furry pals might help, too

Pet therapy also benefits people who are still living at home.

Friends and family can help by paying a "pet visit" to the person's home. Only bring animals that are calm, well-trained and not disruptive.

While it may be tempting to provide a new pet for the patient with dementia, realize that it is unlikely that the individual or their family would be able to handle such an obligation.

Stuffed creature comforts

Some people with a more advanced dementia could enjoy the company of a lifelike stuffed pet animal. I have seen residents grooming, playing with and loving their "pet" as they would any real-life creature.

The ultimate goal of pet therapy is to enrich the person's life, provide more opportunities for joy and improve their quality of life. Pets are one more way that we, as caregivers, can do this.

More Articles About: lifestyle Alzheimer's Disease Neurological (Brain) Conditions
Health Lab word mark overlaying blue cells
Health Lab

Explore a variety of health care news & stories by visiting the Health Lab home page for more articles.

Media Contact Public Relations

Department of Communication at Michigan Medicine

[email protected]


Stay Informed

Want top health & research news weekly? Sign up for Health Lab’s newsletters today!

Featured News & Stories brain drawing yellow blue
Health Lab
Children from disadvantaged communities may die sooner from cancerous brain tumors
Children with inoperable brain tumors may die sooner if they live in areas with lower average income and education levels, a Michigan Medicine-led study finds.
graphic drawn mouse snoozing in purple background and pink maze around it breathing while sleeping and see pink brain inside head with white sparkles fading in and out
Health Lab
Studies uncover the critical role of sleep in the formation of memories
Two new studies from University of Michigan reveal what's happening inside the brain during sleep and sleep deprivation to help or harm the formation of memories.
A graphic of the brain
News Release
University of Michigan researchers receive Javits Award for work on stroke health disparities in Mexican Americans
Two University of Michigan researchers have received the Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke for their work on stroke health disparities in Mexican Americans. The $5 million in funding allows the Texas-based research project to reach a 32-year milestone and expand to 35-to-44-year-olds whose incidence of stroke is increasing.
doctor in white coat with dark blue scrubs touching hand of patient in grey sweater and baseball cap in exam room
Health Lab
Neuropathy common, and mostly undiagnosed, among patients in this Michigan city
A research team, led by Michigan Medicine and in partnership with Hurley Medical Center, finds that nearly three-quarters of patients at a clinic in Flint, Mich., a community that is predominantly Black and socioeconomically disadvantaged, had neuropathy — of which 75% was undiagnosed.
Xray of a stem cell in a mouse brain.
Health Lab
Stem cells improve memory, reduce inflammation in Alzheimer’s mouse brains
Researchers improved memory and reduced neuroinflammation in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s Disease, suggesting another avenue for potential treatment.
Health care provider with stethoscope holds patient's hand
Health Lab
Opinion: Hospice care for those with dementia falls far short of meeting people’s needs at the end of life
An end-of-life care specialist discusses the shortfalls of hospice care coverage for people with dementia, using the experience of former President Jimmy Carter and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter as examples.