Therapy Pets Prove Soothing to People With Alzheimer's

By Toby Roberts

The recent win of Diamond Jim, an English Springer spaniel, at the Westminster Kennel Club's annual top dog competition in New York City brought attention to an increased calling for select pets across the country; serving as therapy dogs for people with Alzheimer's and other disabling ailments. The dog, commonly called James, is retiring from the show world to live the life of a therapy dog. James and his human partner have already worked with people with Alzheimer's, proving a soothing presence in nursing homes where they visit.

A growing number of hospitals, nursing homes, and other health-care facilities across the country are accepting specially trained dogs and cats with welcome arms. Anyone who has ever loved a pet knows how comforting a furry presence can be. Having an affectionate pet visit during a hospital or nursing home stay can be especially beneficial, particularly for someone with Alzheimer's disease.

Not just any dog can became a therapy pet. Therapy pets are assessed for temperament and obedience, then given rigorous training to make sure they (and their human partner) are well suited to working in hospitals, schools, or nursing homes. Groups like the Delta Society and the ASPCA train people-pet pairs across the country. More and more pets, primarily dogs but also cats and other animals, are paying therapeutic visits every day.

Easing Agitation

Studies at the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Nursing show that even a short-term visit by a therapy dog to a nursing home can ease agitation in people with Alzheimer's. The benefits may be particularly pronounced in the early evening, or "sundown" period, when many people with Alzheimer's tend to become agitated and confused. A therapy dog program can be a useful adjunct to other calming activities in such a situation.

Therapy dogs also promote social interaction among individuals with Alzheimer's disease. In one study, 12 people with Alzheimer's who were living in a Special Care Unit in a large midwest Veterans' Home were observed after a pet dog came to visit. Various social behaviors were recorded among the group, including smiles, laughs, looks, leans, touches, verbalizations, name-calling, and others. Observations took place on three separate occasions -- when the dog was absent, when the dog came for a visit, and when the dog spent an extended period on the ward. Results showed that the long-term presence of the dog boosted positive social behaviors among people with Alzheimer's. In another study, the long-term presence of a pet proved useful in those living on a specialized Alzheimer's ward.

Wellness and Prevention

A well-mannered cat or dog isn't just for people who already have Alzheimer's disease. Pets have numerous health benefits that may help to stave off the disease as well. Petting and stroking a dog or cat can be very relaxing, slowing heart rate and lowering blood pressure. Stress and high blood pressure have both been linked to an increased risk for Alzheimer's disease.

Dogs, too, get their owners off the couch and around the block, a form of daily exercise that can have multiple physical benefits. Numerous studies show that regular physical activity, at any age, may help to keep the brain young and focused. [See the alzinfo.org article, "Stay Physically Fit, Keep the Mind Sharp," at http://www.alzinfo.org/newsarticle/templates/newstemplate.asp?articleid=172&zoneid=4 It's no wonder that seniors with dogs are better able to go about their daily activities than those who remain pet-less. Regular exercise also helps to keep weight down, and excess weight has also been linked to sluggish thinking and memory.

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