Companion Animals and Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is the fourth leading cause of death and the fifth leading cause of disability in the United States (Wilson, 2001). AD is a neurodegenerative disorder characterized by impairments in cognitive abilities including memory, language, judgement, and abstract reasoning (Wilson, 2001). Patients with AD constitute a large portion of the nursing home population (Wilson, 2001). The deterioration of the brain that characterizes AD results in numerous difficulties for both the individual suffering from the disease and the caregiver. As the brain deteriorates, the individual’s language abilities become increasingly impaired: this causes communication difficulties between persons with AD and their caregivers (Wilson, 2001). Typically, these disturbed communication patterns have a profound effect on the amount of time persons with AD spend interacting with others. As the communication impairments increase, the time spent interacting with caregivers and loved ones decreases, which is unfortunate because communication is a basic human need that maintains an individual’s contact with the environment while promoting a sense of security (Wilson, 2001). These communication impairments and cognitive impairments make it hard to understand information, thereby resulting in increased levels of stress and agitation for the persons with AD and their caregivers (Churchill, Safaoui, McCabe, & Baun, 1999).

Research studies have proved that using companion animals helps increase socialization and decrease agitation in persons with AD (Churchill et al., 1999). Caregivers can also experience reduced physiological stress by petting companion animals (Wilson, 2001). A study conducted in 1996 showed that having a companion animal reduced the psychological stress of caregivers caring for someone with a neurodegenerative disorder (Fritz, Hart, Farvar, & Kass 1996). Fritz and colleagues (1996) noticed that persons with Alzheimer’s Disease, who were attached to their companion animals, reported significantly fewer mood disorders than those who were not attached to their companion animals. However, they also noted that there was no significant difference in the rate of cognitive decline between those that were exposed to companion animals and those that were not, but there was a significant difference in feelings of agitation and aggression (Fritz et al., 1996). Companion animals have been used in healthcare settings to “reach” individuals who have reduced mental capacity, which hinders their ability to interact with others. Pets provide affection and companionship not contingent on cognitive or physical capacity (Fritz et al., 1996). In other words, pets don’t discriminate based on mental or physical capabilities. They offer  companionship and unconditional love.

A study conducted in 2002 in an Alzheimer’s special care unit set out to see what the effect of a “resident” dog would be on the patients. The behavior of the residents was noted one week prior to the dogs arrival and four weeks after the intervention. Results revealed that participants showed significantly fewer behavior problems during the four weeks spent with the dog (McCabe et al., 2002). The benefits of having companion animals around don’t stop there — in another study conducted by Purdue University, patients with AD improved their nutritional intake when they were around fish aquariums (Edwards et al., 2002). Nutritional intake increased when patients were exposed to the fish daily for two weeks, and continued to increase when exposed to the fish once a week for six weeks (Edwards et al., 2002). The participants in this study gained an average of 1.65 pounds and required less nutritional supplements (Edwards et. al. 2002).  

Lastly, companion animals help to decrease stress, anxiety, agitation, and anger levels in individuals. Whether it is a dog or a fish, having pets around has proven to be beneficial to health and has shown to help individuals with neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease. Overall, having a companion animal increases the quality of life for persons with AD and their caregivers by creating a less stressful atmosphere.


Churchill M., Safaoui J., McCabe B., Baun M. (1999). Using a therapy dog to alleviate the agitation and desocialization of people with Alzheimer’s Disease. Journal Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, 37(4) 16-22. doi: 10.3928/0279-3695-19990401-12

Edwards, N. E., & Beck, A. M. (2002). Animal-assisted therapy and nutrition in Alzheimer’s Disease. Western Journal of Nursing Research, 24(6), 697-712. doi:10.1177/019394502320555430

Fritz, C. L., Hart, L. A., Farver, T. B., & Kass, P. H. (1996). Companion Animals and the Psychological Health of Alzheimer Patients Caregivers. Psychological Reports, 78(2), 467-481. doi:10.2466/pr0.1996.78.2.467

Mccabe, B. W., Baun, M. M., Speich, D., & Agrawal, S. (2002). Resident Dog in the Alzheimer’s Special Care Unit. Western Journal of Nursing Research,24(6), 684-696. doi:10.1177/019394502320555421

Wilson, C. C. (2001). Companion Animals in Human Health. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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