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Animal therapy

Living with dementia can be difficult, but there is research to suggest that animal therapies can help those with the condition. Here, Sean Whiting from pet and equestrian supplies specialist Houghton Country explains the benefits that animals can have for people with dementia.

Dementia can be a very lonely condition, with many patients suffering from emotional and communication difficulties. These symptoms often leave people with dementia feeling frustrated and down. But, with a study published by Clinical Nursing Research finding that animal-assisted therapies can have a positive effect on both the behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia, it may be time to incorporate time with animals into your patients' routine.

Here, I will be sharing some of the main benefits that animals can have for people living with dementia.

They offer companionship

Given the symptoms that patients with dementia experience, they can often feel characterised by their condition and isolate themselves as a result of their frustrations. This can significantly lower their quality of life, making them feel sad and lonely.

Animals offer unconditional love and attention, and can help to give a sense of purpose to those who may feel restricted and helpless because of their condition. They can also help to ease feelings of loneliness and are particularly useful for getting patients to work on their social skills without having to have a full-blown conversation that may feel overwhelming to them.

They can decrease behavioural problems

It isn't uncommon for patients with dementia to have behavioural problems like increased agitation and aggression. But, animal-assisted therapy has shown promising results for treating these types of behaviours in patients with dementia (The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry).

This is likely down to a number of reasons. For one, some animals have the ability to make us feel instantly better by boosting our happiness hormone (oxytocin) and lowering the stress hormone (cortisol) (Psychology Today). Similarly, allowing patients to care for an animal helps them to increase their social behaviours like touch and smiling — this, in turn, helps them to become more conscious about their actions towards others.

They can boost appetite and nutrition levels

A loss of appetite is one of the main symptoms in patients with dementia. This might be because they have poor memory and judgement, which can have an impact on their relationship with food and nutrition. Similarly, they may forget how to chew or swallow, or become more easily distracted by their environment. In some cases, a loss of appetite in these patients can be tied in with feeling depressed due to the symptoms of the condition.

However, animals have been found to improve the appetite of individuals with dementia. In one study published in the Western Journal of Nursing Research, nutritional intake significantly increased when aquariums were introduced to care institutions and continued to increase in the weekly follow-up period.

They increase physical activity

As dementia develops, the amount of muscle tone a patient has may decrease due to changes in brain volume and function. But, when you're caring for somebody with this condition, it's important that you still get them moving about to the best of their ability.

Giving them a pet to look after or introducing them to an animal will get them on their feet (if they're able to stand on their own or with mobility aids). Even just extending their hands and flexing their fingers to stroke a cat or throwing a ball for a dog to fetch will help to increase their strength without exhausting them.

They create a sense of routine

The days can often merge into one for those with dementia, who will be experiencing memory loss. But, having animals visit on specific days of the week can help patients to find a sense of routine and give them something to look forward to. This in itself can positively affect their social skills, as these weekly visits will be a conversation starter.

Dementia can create challenges in all aspects of a patient's life, but animal-assisted therapies can help to ease their symptoms and make them feel more content.