The Use of Companion Animals

Members article

By Jane Verity ©

Animal companionship can be of immense benefit to people with dementia, both emotionally and physiologically. Research shows that heart rates drop, aggression reduces, and there are increases in verbalisation and social interactions. There are two levels of animal companionship; either the 24-hour companionship of a pet or to have regular visits in the form of Animal Assisted Therapy.

24-hour Companionship

The interaction that occurs with an animal companion diffuses loneliness and gives the person with dementia a reason to live and get up in the morning. Being responsible for a pet also fulfils all of the Spark of Life 5 Core Emotional Needs that so often are not met for older people, especially those living in a formal care environment.

The Spark of Life 5 Core Emotional Needs are:

  1. To be needed and useful
  2. To have opportunity to care
  3. To love and be loved
  4. To have self-esteem boosted
  5. To have the power to choose

Caring for a pet automatically enables the person with dementia to be needed and useful, gives them the opportunity to care, they have someone to love and who loves them back unconditionally, and their self-esteem is boosted as a proud pet owner.  When they are empowered to make choices on behalf of their pet, the fifth need of the power to choose is also fulfilled.

Dr Bill Thomas, who founded the Eden Alternative, identified 3 care plagues that are a result of a medical-hospital based model of care.

These are:

  1. Loneliness
  2. Helplessness
  3. Boredom

As part of overcoming these 3 plagues, the pivot points in an Eden Home areanimals, children and plants. They provide a meaningful solution to the 3 plagues that can break the spirit of people in care.

In an Eden Home, it is the 24-hour companionship of a pet that is the focus, as any visiting pet is interpreted as a planned activity rather than a natural part of everyday living.

The Eden Alternative consists of 10 principles that have to be understood and implemented to achieve a fundamental culture change to a social life model of care. Part of this culture change is to turn an administrative, authoritative leadership upside down and move the decision processes as close to the elders and their carers as possible. This process requires everybody to be included in finding solutions to objections.  The decision on whether or not to include pets, or what type of pets to embrace, should never be left to a manager, a leader, or any single person but instead is a decision made by everyone living and working in the environment.

When the idea is raised to include a pet, there may be objections such as who is going to look after the pet in regards to feeding, cleaning or vet bills. There may also be concerns regarding allergies, fears of certain types of animals, or safety considerations.

As a group, find solutions to such objections before acquiring a suitable pet. This is to ensure that by the time the pet arrives, everyone is supportive and has a good understanding of how the animal will form a part of the care culture. The most successful homes are those who have embraced the objections and found solutions before the pet arrives.  Using a Solution Circle is one of the most powerful ways to overcome objections. (For more information, see our article, Spark of Life Solution Circle)

Working together to find solutions enables everyone to provide input.  For example, you can address concerns about allergies by discussing allergy free pets such as the Bichon Frise dog or shorthaired cats. Birds are often underestimated for their immense capacity to provide companionship. A person who is bedridden or confined to a chair can have a bird placed at eye height and close enough to enable contact and meaningful interaction.

Here are some important points to consider before bringing a pet into the care environment:

  • The pet may need its own care plan as it has special needs such as food requirements, preferred routines, rest or exercise time and vet appointments.
  • Clear guidelines need to be created, known, and adhered to by everyone. This could include issues such as having one person in charge of feeding. This will prevent problems such as induced obesity by well-meaning residents or staff.
  • Special procedures to respect OHS issues at resident’s meal times.
  • Ensuring every resident has the opportunity to express affection without compromising the pet’s health such as the rationing of treats etc.

Some staff may perceive that adding a pet to the care environment will create additional work. In practise, this extra care need may in fact provide an opportunity for other residents who are mobile to become an integral part of providing pet care. One resident may even be able to assist other residents who enjoy the company of a pet but are unable to provide care. This fulfils both residents’ emotional needs as the person providing care feels needed and useful and the bedridden person can enjoy the companionship and interaction with a pet.

Animal Assisted Therapy

If a facility is unlikely to engage in having pets 24 hours a day, Animal Assisted Therapy as a planned activity can be highly beneficial and fills a much needed gap in the emotional care of residents.

Animal-assisted therapy means including animals in therapeutic work. This can involve areas such as counselling, rehabilitation, physiotherapy and occupational therapy. Visiting animals can simply aim to achieve a positive environment or help an individual to feel good. These interactions provide comfort and assist in encouraging social skills. This means that animal-assisted activities do not necessarily need to be overseen by a professional.

Many different animals are used for therapy, the most common being domesticated animals such as cats and dogs or small animals like rabbits and guinea pigs. These types of animals are easily transportable and are able to visit people in a variety of situations.

Animal visits throughout a facility can improve eye/hand co-ordination in residents, encourage reminiscing and increase the opportunity for emotional release. Visits can be in the form of a group activity or individual time in each resident’s room. Remember to encourage the animal handler to knock at each door and ask permission to enter. Take care to ensure the person wishes to participate and has no fear of the animal. The handler should then introduce themselves and the pet and promote conversation with prompts such as, ‘What does this beautiful dog feel like? I wonder if he would like a hug? What wonderful fluffy fur he has!’

Enabling people with dementia to enjoy quality interaction with pets, whether full-time or as part of a visiting program can reduce isolation and loneliness. Pets boost self-esteem, act as a confidant, and encourage the older person to exercise and socialise. The key with introducing animals to any care environment is to be flexible and creative. Identifying solutions to challenges will enable you to provide the best possible outcomes for both the pet and your residents.

Further reading