Animal Therapy: Social Interaction Without Judgement

Cute PuppySocial Interaction has been proven to be an essential part of keeping mentally fresh when facing dementia.  Often times the problem that arises with socializing with progressed dementia is not being able to remember the people or topics you are discussing or the reactions from the others to the lost memory.  By their nature, animals are non-judgmental and can offer unconditional positive regard to the person, regardless of their ability to remember meeting the animal before or being able to hold lengthy conversations.  Social needs for those with dementia can often be fulfilled or supplemented by animal assisted therapy or a family pet due to this natural ability to not show disappointment.  As long as there is someone around to take care of the pet’s needs such as walking, feeding and vet visits, a pet can be a wonderful part of life for a person with dementia.  For those who do not have the resources to have someone take care of the pet, animal therapy groups or volunteers can come to bring therapy animals for visits in order to help reduce agitation, provide social connections and bring joy to the person.

A few noted positive outcomes to pet visits that have been found is an increased appetite, lower blood pressure, and an easy conversation topic with other people that provides a stress reduction in social situations.  A side benefit to having a therapy animal visit is the physical interaction that is acceptable with an animal that the person just met, and the tactile stimulation of stroking or petting the animal.  Depending on the person’s mobility, a dog can also provide a source of exercise.

Sometimes a live animal is not an option for a person with allergies, or who cannot care for the pet on their own or does not have access to animal assisted therapy.  For these people, studies have shown robotic animals to provide a similar social benefit, especially later in the progression of the dementia.  One of the most noted types of robotic animal interaction is Paro, the robotic seal.  Paro is a robotic animal that interacts with the person but also learns so it can respond to the person’s specific behaviors.  Also previously studied was the use of a stuffed animal for very late stage dementia, at which point the social ability is so diminished that a response from the animal is not necessary to see a benefit from the social company.