Alzheimer's Disease: The Magic of Pets

Kathleen Allen, LCSW, C-ASWCM

Senior Care Management Services, LLC

  • Expert Advice
Published on:
A senior man hugging his pet dog.

Explore the benefits of having a pet for one with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.

Walk into many long-term care facilities these days, and one of the first things that you might see is a dog, one that is often times flopped down at the feet of a resident in the main area of the facility. The dog looks as comfortable and relaxed as could be, and so too, does the resident.

Whether it’s a big floppy dog, a bird, a cat, or even a fish aquarium, the benefits of having a pet for one with Alzheimer’s or other dementia are numerous. Pets bring great benefits to all of us—companionship, unconditional love, and fun. By their very nature, pets do not judge, and they are not critical. And for someone with dementia, those qualities make them a good companion. Their very presence can help reduce the effects of dementia—anxiety, agitation, irritability, depression, and loneliness. By their friendliness and non-threatening way, pets can help people with dementia be more interactive when sometimes they are not able to do so in social settings with other adults.

Resident Dog in the Alzheimer’s Special Care Unit Helps with Problem Behaviors

In a 2002 study conducted on an Alzheimer’s special care unit, researchers set out to determine the effect of a resident dog (versus a visiting dog) on behavior. Resident’s behavior during the day and during the evening was measured both during the week before the dog was placed on the unit, and then for four weeks following the dog’s arrival. Though no significant behavior changes occurred on the evening shift, the day shift participants showed significantly fewer behavior problems during the four weeks of the study.

Nutrition Can Improve Too

The nutritional benefits of therapy pets on people with Alzheimer’s have been studied and shown to improve nutritional intake. In a 2002 study conducted by researchers at Purdue University, fish aquariums were used with 62 participants with Alzheimer’s disease on a daily basis over a two-week treatment period and then weekly for a six-week period. The outcome: Nutritional intake increased during the first two weeks and continued to do so during the next six-week period. The participants gained an average of 1.65 pounds and required less nutritional supplementation, thus reducing the overall costs of their care.

At Home with Pets

While most studies about pet-assisted therapy have been conducted in long-term care facilities, the same benefits can be obtained with a pet in the home. Companionship, reducing anxiety and agitation, an excuse to get exercise, and improving interactions and socialization remain benefits of a pet in the home. There are some considerations to remember when it comes to a pet at home, though. Four-footed pets can be tripping hazards for the elderly, so that must be considered. And if the person with Alzheimer’s cannot remember to feed the pet, someone else must be sure to do so. The same is true for keeping up with licenses, grooming, and shots. Allergic to pet hair?  Perhaps a fish tank would be a good option in that case. The important thing is to match the pet with the abilities of the one with Alzheimer’s and have someone else on hand as a backup to assist with caring for the pet.

Wherever the setting and whatever the kind of animal, the magic of a favorite pet remains. They can make a big difference in the daily life of one with Alzheimer’s or other dementia.

  • 1 McCabe, B. W., Baun, M.M., Speich, D., Agrawal, S., (2002).  Resident Dog in the Alzheimer’s Special Care Unit. West J Nurs Res October 2002 24: 684-696.
    2 Edwards NE, Beck AM. Animal-assisted therapy and Nutrition in Alzheimer's disease (2002). West J Nurs Res 2002;24(6):697-712.

About the author

Headshot of Kathleen Allen.

Kathleen Allen, LCSW, C-ASWCM

Senior Care Management Services, LLC

Kathleen Allen has been working with older adults and their families for over 20 years.

About BrightFocus Foundation

BrightFocus Foundation is a premier global nonprofit funder of research to defeat Alzheimer’s, macular degeneration, and glaucoma. Through its flagship research programs — Alzheimer’s Disease Research, National Glaucoma Research, and Macular Degeneration Research — the Foundation has awarded nearly $290 million in groundbreaking research funding over the past 50 years and shares the latest research findings, expert information, and resources to empower the millions impacted by these devastating diseases. Learn more at   


The information provided in this section is a public service of BrightFocus Foundation, should not in any way substitute for the advice of a qualified healthcare professional, and is not intended to constitute medical advice. Although we make efforts to keep the medical information on our website updated, we cannot guarantee that the information on our website reflects the most up-to-date research.     

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