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To commemorate Love Your Pet Day (Feb 20, 2020), we are thinking about how pets and having contact with animals can improve the lives of people with dementia.

Owning and taking care of animals is a uniquely human characteristic. It’s a lifestyle choice that dates back centuries, the reasons are manifold. Pets are companions. Alongside human family members, pets are considered as ‘family’.  They provide companionship and comfort.

Some of the key benefits of pets, from the perspective of their owners, are:

  • They’re great listeners: Pets are always happy to hear our anecdotes and stories and never appear to get tired of regular complaints and grievances.
  • They make us feel good: Pets can precipitate a mix of emotions, such as peace and calm, fun, excitement and love.
  • They provide us with a purpose: Pets need constant attention and care. It is not a commitment that can be taken on half-halfheartedly. Having a pet provides people with a sense of purpose.
  • They offer reciprocal love: People interviewed in a recent survey spoke about the ‘unconditional love’ they get from their pets.

As well as anecdotal evidence, it has been proven scientifically that spending time with animals boosts feel-good hormones, relieves stress and anxiety and reduces blood pressure.

For people with dementia, engagement with animals adds a valuable dimension to their lives, creating meaning and improving wellbeing.

Social psychologist, Tom Kitwood, identified five key psychological needs that we all, as humans, have: comfort, identity, occupation, inclusion and attachment, and these needs are anchored together by our core need for love.

All the needs identified by Kitwood can be met or partially met through positive engagement with animals. As well as the benefits outlines above, contact with animals provides a range of sensory experiences using touch, sight, sound and smell.

Many people with dementia who live at home are too frail to take on the responsibility of owning a pet and people living in care homes do not usually own their own animals.

There are some fantastic community schemes that offer people living with dementia the opportunity to connect with animals.

Some examples are:

Borrow My Doggy: a scheme to connect dog owners with dog borrowers for walks, weekends and holidays

Pets as Therapy: a charity that provides a visiting service, delivered by volunteers along with their own behaviourally assessed pets, to people in hospitals, hospices, day centres, nursing homes and care homes.

Equine Assisted Therapy: provided by various organisations across the UK, for example Bodster. Equine Assisted Therapy encompasses a range of activities to promote human physical and mental health

Care homes too, recognise the benefits for people living with dementia of engagement with animals and many have live-in pets and animals in their grounds, plus visiting projects that bring animals into the care home and facilitate activities with residents.