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The Benefits and Limitations of Pet Therapy for People with Dementia

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Cowling, Audrey
McFadden, Susan
Volume V, December 2010, pp.82-92.
Dec 2010
Pets - Social aspects; Pets - Therapeutic use; Human-animal relationships; Bonding, Human-Pet
Evidence of a human-animal bond goes back to the origins of man. More recently, therapy that utilizes animals has been implemented in long-term care facilities to aid in the well-being of people with dementia. Pet therapy, or animal-assisted therapy, increases engagement with the environment, decreases agitation and depression, and promotes social interaction. Advances in technology have led to alternatives to using live animals. For example, both robotics and video technology have shown promising results. However, several factors limit the ability to evaluate animal-assisted therapy including a lack of controlled studies, the impact of clients' previous relationships with animals, and the use of by-proxy measures. Addressing these factors allows for a clearer picture of the benefits of animal-assisted therapy for people with dementia. Novelist George Eliot once said, "Animals are such agreeable friends-they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms" (The Quotations Page). The nonjudgmental manner of animals makes them the ideal therapists for people in need of a companion, especially those with physical and mental disabilities. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, 60 percent of households in the United States have at least one pet (ASPCA 2010). This statistic-along with studies on the human-animal bond-shows that pets are often an important part of a family. In particular, animals can provide a source of social support. This conclusion is supported by the number of Americans who "talk to their pet as they would a person, or consider their pet a confidant" (Beck and Katcher 2003). For older adults facing memory loss, animals supply unconditional love and companionship. More than five million people in the United States are currently living with Alzheimer's disease, and this figure is projected to increase dramatically in the coming years (Alzheimer's Association 2010). Alzheimer's is a specific type of dementia, which is a general term for the progressive loss of cognitive ability. While there are many forms of dementia, Alzheimer's is the most common. There is no cure for this disease, so various types of therapy are employed to improve individuals' quality of life. Some of the behavioral symptoms of Alzheimer's include depression, apathy, irritability, anxiety, restlessness, and difficulty engaging in social activities (Motomura, Yagi, and Ohyama 2004). One form of treatment that addresses many of these symptoms is animal-assisted therapy (AAT). When used with people who have been diagnosed with dementia, AAT takes advantage of the human-animal bond to decrease behavioral and emotional problems and to increase social engagement and communication. People with Alzheimer's may experience difficulty finding the right words or forget what they wanted to say. Increased communication, both verbal and nonverbal, is an important benefit of AAT because it allows people with dementia to express their emotions and ideas and to relate to others. The ability to communicate can decrease the isolation and depression felt by those who have been diagnosed with dementia. Many people assume that interacting with animals is advantageous, but what does the research indicate, especially with regard to people with dementia? There has been little empirical data to demonstrate who benefits the most from AAT and under what conditions these benefits can be maximized. In addition, the quality of current research needs to be examined, along with questions that have not yet been addressed. It is important to explore these questions in order to understand whether or not AAT is effective for people with dementia.
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