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Animals and dementia

Animals bring joy to us all – they’re playful, cute and cuddly.  Pets can be a great source of routine, purpose and reassurance, especially when you’re feeling low.

It’s no surprise, then, that our furry friends can have an amazing knack for reducing anxiety, improving mood and encouraging communication and engagement in people with dementia.

Jack, the short-but-mighty Shetland pony

Ali Stearn has been taking her rescued Shetland pony, Jack Brock, to dementia cafes and into care homes for the past six years. The Shetland pony stands at just 20 inches tall, but residents and care staff alike are overjoyed by his presence. His gentle, calm temperament and small size make him easy to stroke and cuddle, says Ali.

Ali recalls many wonderful moments visiting people with dementia with Jack. “I remember a lovely lady called Ava, who I saw across two years,” she says. “I saw her dementia get worse over the years to the point that she couldn’t speak. Once, she was sitting quietly, stroking Jack, and he sneezed. She got the giggles, which was lovely to see, and then she spoke two words clearly for the first time in ages: ‘meadow’ and ‘carts’.”

Jack Brock visiting a care home

Ali says the nurses were delighted that Ava had spoken after so long. When they spoke to Ava’s family, they found out that she had grown up on a smallholding with horses, and had even looked after war horses there during the Second World War.

“The last time I saw Ava, she had really deteriorated and was in a kind of trance, not really moving,” Ali says. “Jack put his head on her lap and nuzzled her hand, and suddenly she reached out to grab the lead rope to hold the horse.”

Ali’s theory is that Ava’s memories of caring for horses were awakened by Jack. “When you grow up with horses, it becomes instinct to grab the lead rope. It becomes second nature,” she explains. “Sometimes, people just need something to love.”

Harry, the reassuring rescue cat

For Jan, her cat Harry – who she describes as ‘the most beautiful cat on the planet’ brought a similar kind of comfort to her parents, both of whom had dementia. “Both Mum and Dad smiled more when Harry was present, and this then reduced their confusion, encouraged conversation and livened their moods,” Jan explains. “Harry would cuddle up in Dad’s lap for hours – he was always much calmer when Harry lay there and purred.”

Harry comforted Jan’s dad as he neared the end of his life. “During Dad’s last two weeks he was in bed in terrible pain, and would at times be very confused and distressed. Harry hardly left him. If Harry did leave, Dad would ask where he had gone, but Harry would soon come back and Dad would calm down,” Jan recalls. “I even believe that Harry’s presence had an effect on Dad’s pain as he would visibly relax and then often fall asleep, usually with Harry on top of him.”

Jan’s cat, Harry

Jan’s cat, Harry

Jan’s mum’s dementia developed more gradually over several years, and Jan believes that Harry was aware of her developing frailty and became gentler in response to it.

“Harry was a stray cat who was found in a deserted building, covered in rat bites and near death,” Jan says. “We gave him love and a home, and in return he has learnt to love (and protect) us.” 

Jasmine’s nan and cat, Merlin

Jasmine’s nan and cat, Merlin

The 10-pet household

“My nan started showing signs of dementia when she was only 65,” says Jasmine, who lives with her mum, her nan – now 78 – and their 10 pets: four bunnies, four budgies, a dog and a cat.

“She’s always been a massive animal lover, and all of our animals bring her a lot of comfort and joy. She talks to them all day long,” explains Jasmine.

Jasmine’s nan is particularly close to their cat, Merlin. “He’s so chilled and relaxed, which is a very soothing influence on Nan, as she’s often very unsettled and disorientated,” says Jasmine.

The animals also bring Jasmine’s nan a sense of purpose and preserves an essential part of her personality. “My nan definitely craves stimulation, so when she’s around the animals and interacting with them, it gives her something to occupy her mind,” Jasmine says.

“I think she feels she has a duty of care for them, which is definitely a part of her nature. She has always thrived on taking charge and looking after everyone, so having the animals around keeps that part of her alive.”

Jasmine’s Admiral Nurse, Joe Costello, believes strongly in the positive and meaningful impact that animals and pets can have on wellbeing and quality of life for people with dementia and their carers.

“Animals can help people like Jasmine’s nan reconnect with their personal identity and their life history, and pets especially can bring continuity into people’s lives and provide them with a sense of purpose and structure,” he says.

Animals in care settings

Dementia specialists widely recognise the positive effect that animals can have on people with dementia, and many care homes across the country arrange occasional visits from animals like Jack, Harry and Merlin.

Some of Dementia UK’s Admiral Nurses have been involved in research into how animal therapy could be a permanent feature in care homes.

Admiral Nurses Angie Williams and Penny Dodds believe this could happen through the use of robotic toy animals, which could help get around the problem of keeping and looking after a live animal in a care setting.

Some of Jasmine’s family pets; four budgies, dog Mollie, and bunnies Dolly and Dennis

Some of Jasmine’s family pets; four budgies, dog Mollie, and bunnies Dolly and Dennis

Angie, who works with the Royal British Legion in the Order of St John Care Trust, recently worked on a project with the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing to test the use of a mechanical cuddly seal that they called ‘Paro’ with care home residents.

The effect was similar to that of live animals: residents who had previously been withdrawn from activities or who rarely communicated at all were brought to life by the toy, which moves and makes noises.

Residents became more alert and engaged with what was happening around them, including the toy, which led to a happier atmosphere all round.

Penny says: “Paro can be used as a vehicle for communication, enhancing companionship and physical and mental wellbeing. This isn’t a replacement for human care – it’s an augmentation of it.”

If someone with dementia needs help with caring for a pet, the Cinnamon Trust offers volunteer support so they can be with their animals for longer. This includes dog-walking, fostering if a person is in hospital, advice on pet-friendly care homes, and long-term care for animals whose owners have moved into accommodation where pets are not allowed. Visit cinnamon.org.uk or call 01736 757900.

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