Animal Assisted Therapy for people with dementia

Dogs and cats have been used in modern dementia care with excellent results of improved levels of agitation and engagement. Despite concerns among some staff that they might cause infections or be dirty and need to be cleaning up after them, animal assisted therapy has become a core part of most dementia care settings.

Some dementia care homes have a “live in” animal who lives with the residents and is very much part of the furniture. This is usually a cat whose presence is quiet and gentle. Cats have even been noted to choose to sleep on the bed of residents who are close to death, becoming a local signal for increased palliative care as end-of-life approaches. This is sometimes interpreted as a comforting presence and many cats are maintained in dementia care environments with great affection.

The Eden Alternative makes explicit their emphasis in having animals as a core part of daily life. Local aged care homes in Melbourne that embrace the Eden philosophy have been known to have visiting donkeys, goats and other farm animals. These visits have caused great delight and much talk for days after the event. Animals large and small can be integrated into the life and rhythms of an aged care home. This should be moreso in regions where animals were a part of every day life such as country aged care homes.

But is it necessary to have a live animal? Can’t you just have a stuffed toy? Or a robot? A study in 2009 examined the effectiveness of a live dog versus a robotic “pet”. They compared the effect of a person, a person accompanied by a live dog, and a person accompanied by an AIBO (Sony’s computerised robotic “pet”), on behavioural indicators of social interaction among female nursing home residents with dementia. All three types of visits stimulated residents to initiate conversation, touches, and looks at other individuals (human, dog, and AIBO) and provided contacts with the outside world. Both the live dog and AIBO stimulated resident social interaction beyond that stimulated by the visitor alone. The AIBO induced longer looks and more resident-initiated conversation than the live dog and provided a positive source of social interaction. While all three types of visits  stimulated nursing home resident social interaction, the success of the robotic dog in stimulating social interaction by dementia residents suggests that it may provide a viable alternative to live animal visitations.

Somehow though there is something more pleasing and satisfying in terms of an ongoing relationship with a real animal, particularly with a dog. Other animals provide pleasure and stimulation simply by being there for brief periods and if that is possible in your home it it likely to have real benefits to the residents.

There are organisations such as Delta Pet Partners and Lead the Way that will provide trained animals and trainer owners to come to your aged care home for visits that can be safe and enjoyable for all.

So no matter if it is for a short time or a long term arrangement, having access to animals should be seen as a normal part of life in an aged care home for people living with dementia.

We have no commercial connection with either of the groups below but they may be able to help you find more information and resources.

Delta Pet Partners

Delta Society Australia Limited
Shop 2, 50 Carlton Crescent
Ph: (02) 9797 7922
Fax: (02) 9799 5009


Lead the way

Phone: 03 9761 0973

Mobile: 0408 376 531

Fax: 03 9739 8220

Postal Address:

PO Box 8046

Ferntree Gully Vic 3156