A number of studies suggest that pets offer emotional and physical health benefits for people, including lowered blood pressure and heart rate, decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and increased levels of serotonin. A recent Swedish study found that owning a dog is linked to reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and death, with the association stronger with certain breeds such as pointers and retrievers. Even fish can have a calming effect.

Pets offer “unconditional love” and companionship, both of which benefit people with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. A friendly dog or affectionate cat, for instance, can ease depression and anxiety, provide the person with a sense of purpose, offer sensory stimulation, and trigger pleasant memories. Walking a dog also offers the health benefits of fresh air and exercise. There are many positives to pet ownership or pet visits, but families should consider the following:

  • Pet ownership is a commitment that lasts for many years. People with dementia who are living at home with assistance may be able to manage daily care of a cat or dog, but family members should assess their loved one’s ability to do so. Even low-maintenance pets such as fish require regular feeding and tank-cleaning.
  • Owning a cat or dog is expensive when the animal gets sick and needs to be seen by a vet or requires special food or medication. Who will be responsible for vet visits? Are in-home caregivers agreeable to cleaning up after a pet, especially senior cats and dogs that may have “accidents” indoors or other medical problems?
  • If the person with dementia eventually has to transition to a facility, what will happen to the pet? While some facilities will accept certain animals, many do not.
  • People with dementia may react unpredictably to the presence of an animal and may become agitated rather than comforted.

Some long-term care communities and other facilities have a resident pet, and many provide visits with “therapy” animals through arrangements with pet visitation organizations. These pet visits give residents the opportunity to bond with an animal without having the responsibility of caring for it. Some facilities will also allow families to bring their well-behaved pets for a visit, but it is important for family members to be mindful that the individual with dementia may or may not enjoy the experience.

There are many considerations to whether a pet is the right choice for a loved one with dementia related illnesses.