Amazing Stories of Animal Therapy for Alzheimer’s Patients

As Lisa Abeyta’s father’s Alzheimer’s is progressing, his ability to communicate and cope with unfamiliar surroundings and noises is diminishing. Noises of laughter and happy conversation that used to make him smile now cause him distress. Despite these disturbing changes, one thing is positive and encouraging—his ability to communicate with Lisa’s dog, Roscoe.

When Lisa’s father visits her home, Roscoe immediately greets him at the door. Until recently, Lisa didn’t realize that Roscoe has an incredible ability to give voice to her father, who has lost most of his verbal communication skills. She is simply amazed at how, when Roscoe is in the room, her father’s ability to speak reappears. According to Abeyta, “More than once, I’ve watched [my dad] coo and talk to [Roscoe] even as his ability to form sentences and find the words he needs to communicate has deteriorated.” Not wanting to lose the memory of the moment, she filmed a few moments of his interaction with her dog and uploaded the video to YouTube and Reddit. The video went viral with more than 4 million views and lots of positive comments from others in similar situations. She had no idea the video would touch so many people, and hopes others will have similar positive experiences with therapeutic animals.

Another astounding case of an animal’s effect on Alzheimer’s patients is Oscar, a cat who resides on the third floor dementia ward of Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island. Oscar has the almost mystical ability to sniff out patients who face imminent death, and he invariably stays with them to offer comfort until they have passed. Often, Oscar will not leave a patient’s bedside until someone arrives to remove the deceased. Then, he will turn to the next most needy patient. Oscar’s story has been told in the masterful book, Making Rounds With Oscar, by David Dosa, M.D., a staff physician at Steere House. No one knows precisely what alerts Oscar to the pending demise of a dementia patient, but what is known is the comfort he gives to these patients at a time when they are most in need.

According to the Alzheimer’s Associationpet therapy dates back to the 1860s, though the positive impact of animals on Alzheimer’s patients wasn’t studied in earnest until the 1980s. Since May is National Pet Month, it is an ideal time to explore the many amazing cats, such as Oscar, and dogs, such as Roscoe, who offer such help and unconditional love to those with Alzheimer’s. Now, bunnies are also being used more and more for pet therapy. Please read our recent blog post about this topic for more details.

How do pets help those with Alzheimer’s? Due to the anxiety that social situations can cause those with Alzheimer’s, they often avoid social situations altogether, including interacting with family and loved ones. Research shows that people with dementia recognize pets as friendly and non-threatening. When they have a pet with them, studies show they display more interactive behaviors, as is the case with Lisa Abeyta’s father in our example. Check out this video which elaborates on the positive effects therapy animals can have on those with Alzheimer’s.

In addition to stimulating a social response, dementia patients may benefit from the presence of therapy animals because of:

  • Reduced agitation. Agitation behaviors, including verbal or physical outbursts, general emotional distress, restlessness, pacing, shredding (paper or tissues) that are common among later stage dementia patients, are reduced in the presence of a pet.
  • Physical activity. People dealing with Alzheimer’s can lose motivation to maintain physical activity. Depending on a patient’s mobility, he or she may be able to brush the animal, toss a ball, or even go for a short walk.
  • Lower blood pressure. Spending time with an animal has even been correlated to lower blood pressure and increased odds of survival after a heart attack.
  • Improved eating and personal hygiene. Those with Alzheimer’s sometimes neglect necessary daily activities such as eating or basic personal hygiene. Alzheimer’s patients have been shown to eat more and pay closer attention to basic hygiene following a pet’s visit.
  • Pleasure. Some patients simply enjoy the presence of the pet and its human companion, as well as the tricks that some therapy animals can do.
  • Increased socialization. Many individuals with Alzheimer’s, who respond to little or nothing else in their environment, will respond to the non-threatening presence of a gentle therapy animal. An animal provides a natural and easy conversation topic for dementia patients, who often feel a great deal of strain from being put into social situations.

Although therapy animals for Alzheimer’s patients are a recently emerging therapeutic treatment, there are certifications and registrations that exist to uphold a high standard for these animals. Visit Pet Partners and Love On A Leash for more details about training and certification programs. It is important to note that it takes a very special kind of animal to be used for therapy. It is crucial that the animal is of pleasant and suitable temperament. Therapy animals must be able to sit, stay, and resist distractions such as other animals or attractive smells. The animals must be bathed and groomed regularly, as the individuals they are interacting with on a daily basis are likely susceptible to disease and infection.

Do you have a loved one with Alzheimer’s who is nearing the need for long-term care or already receiving long-term care? Whether you are looking for a facility that allows pets or not, if you have not done Long-Term Care Planning, Estate Planning or Incapacity Planning (or had your Planning documents reviewed in the past several years), now is the time. Please call The Fairfax and Fredericksburg Medicaid Asset Protection Law Firm of Evan H. Farr, P.C. at 703-691-1888 in Fairfax or 540-479-1435 in Fredericksburg to make an appointment for a introductory consultation. While you are here, you will have the opportunity to meet our delightfully cuddly therapy bunny and therapy cats, as well as our cute but not-so-cuddly African dwarf frogs. 

P.S. Don’t forget about protecting your pet after your death! Read our post about Pet Trusts and be sure to include them in your planning. In addition, be sure to read “Critter Corner” each Friday, where our therapy pets answer elder law and estate planning questions.

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About Renee Eder

Renee Eder is the Director of Public Relations for the Farr Law Firm, and gives the voice to the Critters of Critter Corner. Renee’s poodle, Penny, is an official comfort dog who she and her children bring to visit with seniors who are in the early stages of dementia at a local senior home once a month.