All pet owners know that the bond that they have with their furry friend is hard to explain. And with nearly 50% of the general UK adult population being pet owners – I’m sure quite a lot of you can probably relate. They’re like these crazy little creatures that live in your house – rent free, they don’t speak. Yet somehow you can understand their every emotion and they’re just your most favourite friend. Whether it’s a sassy little cat with a love for treats, or a cutie little pup so loyal and playful. They boost our serotonin and they are just our everything! We know how much they can do for people, providing that unconditional companionship. So what can they do for people living with dementia? Well, I wanted to find out more, so I did what any researcher would do – a good old database search and found some interesting results…
Rusanen et al of the University of Eastern Finland published a longitudinal follow-up study last year. It explored the effects of pets on activities of daily living, disease progression and neuropsychiatric symptoms. Participants were measured at baseline, annually for 3 years and then after 5 years. All participants were community dwelling, so the pets weren’t part of a care facilities or therapy animals – they were all individually owned. Only 72 participants made it to the final follow-up visit, but we’re kind of used to that level of attrition – right? The results are actually fascinating! During the 5-year follow-up, the study participants with pets had significantly better abilities to independently perform activities of living and significantly less neuropsychiatric symptoms than people without pets.
I found another recent (2020) publication from the “Improving the experience of Dementia and Enhancing Active Life (IDEAL)” programme. It also explored impacts of pet ownership and pet care in people with dementia. “Pet care” meaning specifically being involved in caring for the animal. This study investigated outcomes of: mobility, loneliness, depression and quality of life (via QoL-AD). This study was particularly interesting as it distinguished between pet ownership and pet care. Thereby taking into consideration the additional burden pet care may place on the person with dementia, but also the benefits of taking responsibility of the pet and enhanced bonding opportunities. The results were particularly interesting. Having a pet was associated with a higher likelihood of walking over 3 hours/week. Those with a dog and who were involved in its care were less likely to be lonely than those with no dog. Having any pet –but no involvement in its care was associated with increased depression and decreased QoL compared with those without a pet. So really, the key factor in the associations was involvement in the care of the pet by the person with dementia.
For those with cognitive impairment, pets can provide non-judgemental interactions that are reassuring and comforting. However, pet ownership is not without burden. These studies both show the benefits of animal interaction for people with dementia, and these benefits could be experienced by institutionalised populations too. Trained dogs can be brought into nursing homes, whereby residents are able to engage via petting, brushing and feeding treats. These kind of animal-assisted intervention visits have been shown to reduce depression and agitation, and increased social interaction and quality of life.
As there is no cure for dementia, there is growing interest in alternative and non-pharmacological strategies for living well with dementia and supporting the person with dementia’s capability to perform daily activities. Whereby slowing the disease progression down are important goals in managing the disease. According to these studies, having pets could be one way to achieve this.
Thanks for listening, Hannah!
Hannah Hussain is a PhD Student in Health Economics at The University of Sheffield. As a proud third generation migrant and British-Asian, her career path has been linear and ever evolving, originally qualifying as a Pharmacist in Nottingham, then Health Economics in Birmingham. Her studies have opened a world into Psychology, Mental Health and other areas of health, and with that and personal influences she found her passion for dementia.