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Therapy pets might sound a little wacky, but evidence suggests they can be a valuable therapeutic tool which can provide many surprising benefits for people with dementia and memory loss.

Here’s a few reasons why it might be worth trying a sensory therapy pet

1. They’re almost as good as the real thing

A much-loved pet can be of great benefit to someone with dementia, providing unconditional love and companionship. But if the person you care about is no longer able to care for a real pet, a sensory animal could be the next best thing. Robotic pets often look very realistic and provide a great deal of sensory stimulation and enjoyment, but without the responsibilities of pet ownership (including vet bills and litter trays).

2. They bring back happy memories and enhance positive emotions

For people who have owned pets in the past, sensory animals can spark many powerful memories. But don’t worry if the pet you choose isn’t an exact replica of a ginger Tom they loved forty years ago. The simple act of holding, stroking or cuddling a therapy ‘toy’ whether it’s a cat or dog, lion or teddy, is what’s important.

3. They can ease anxiety and agitation

Sensory pets have been shown to have a calming effect for many people with dementia. A cat that ‘purrs’ whilst sitting on your knee, or a ted that plays a favourite song when you press its paw, is bound to soothe, relax and bring comfort.

4. They bring out strong maternal and paternal instincts

If the person you care about has spent many years of their life raising children and/or caring for grandchildren, a sensory animal can fulfil an important need; the need to nurture. Simply holding, stroking and caring for a sensory pet can feel like a very normal, natural activity for both men and women. Don’t assume it’s only women who will find this comforting, men who’ve raised a family or owned a pet could also find their nurturing, protective instincts coming out.

5. They provide a sense of purpose and meaning

People with dementia like to be busy (just like everyone else). But as their dementia progresses, it can become increasingly difficult for them to do the things that used to keep them busy and make them feel useful. A sensory pet can go some way to filling this gap, providing a sense of empowerment that can feel truly invigorating.

Two frequently asked questions:

Are sensory pets demeaning?

Some people worry about giving the person they love a ‘fake’ pet. Is it demeaning or patronising, they ask, to give a grown adult a toy? Whilst these concerns are understandable, sensory animals aren’t ‘toys’ they are therapeutic tools that have been found to bring happiness, boost mood, ease agitation and provide enormous comfort to people with dementia. Our research shows that most family carers who decide a sensory animal is ‘worth a try’ find themselves pleasantly surprised by their benefits.

Why do I have to buy special toys?

You don’t. Some family carers find that offering the person they love a favourite teddy bear or soft toy when they’re feeling distressed, is all it takes. However, if you can afford to buy a sensory animal that has been designed specifically for adults with dementia, you might find it even more beneficial. Some have very special additional features which can bring added pleasure and comfort.