Animal assisted therapy aims to improve social, emotional and cognitive functioning by using animals as the form of treatment, for those who show little response to other stimuli. This type of therapy is particularly useful in treating people with dementia, whose condition causes them to manifest many neurobehavioural problems such as delusion, depression, apathy, anxiety, irritability, sleep disorders and problems in social situations. As dementia becomes more prevalent in society, the associated behavioural symptoms will also increase (Richeson, 2003), causing significant distress to caregivers (Kiecolt-Glaser, Dura, Speicher, Trask and Glaser, 1991). Animal assisted therapy offers a psychosocial solution to this problem, helping to improve behavioural abnormalities and providing a positive influence on the mental states of those with dementia (Motomura, Yagi and Ohyama, 2004).
Bernstein, Friedmann and Malaspina (2000) compared the usefulness of animal assisted therapy and non-animal therapy such as arts, crafts and bingo for patients with dementia. Both animal and non-animal assisted therapy encouraged patient conversations. The most significant difference between therapies was found in rates of touch. Unlike non-animal therapy, touching animals significantly increased patients’ engagement and initiation of behaviour. Touch is a vital aspect of social stimulation and animal assisted therapy helps to improve this type of social behaviour, which is often deficient in patients with dementia. This study indicates that using animals has benefits over non animal therapy because it motivates patients with dementia to engage socially. This is beneficial for both dementia patients and caregivers, because behavioural problems are reduced.
Several studies indicate animal assisted therapy has many human health benefits, for example decreased blood pressure, heart rate and stress levels and improved emotional well-being and social interaction (e.g. Odendaai, 2000; Jorgenson, 2007). These studies however are repeatedly criticised due to the research relying on a small sample size (Palley, O’Rourke and Niemi, 2010). Berstein et al. (2000) used a sample of 33 participants, 29 of them were women and four of them were men. It is possible to criticise this aspect of the methodology as the study focuses mainly on women and the sample size is especially small for male patients. However, the majority of people with dementia in Europe are women (Lobo, Launer, Fratiglioni, Andersen, Carlo, Breteler et al., 2000). This may occur because dementia becomes more common with age and women tend to live longer than men. Therefore it could be argued that Bernstein et al (2000) focused their study on dementia in women as it is more prevalent in this gender. If the Bernstein et al. (2000) study were to be replicated, a larger sample size could be used to show a greater effect size. In addition, a larger number of male patients should be studied, because although dementia is more prevalent in women it does still affect men.
In conclusion, animal assisted therapy is an effective psychosocial method of improving the behavioural problems associated with dementia, particularly in rates of touch which is important in social stimulation. However, in order for animal assisted therapy to be accepted as a therapeutic modality in conventional medical practice, larger sample sizes need to be used in research and should not be biased towards females. Improving the methodology in the research helps us to understand how to improve dementia patients’ behavioural problems, improving not only the lives of the patients, but the lives of their caregivers.
Animal assisted therapy picture (n. d.). Retrieved from: http://mccarthypsychology.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Old-woman-and-dog.jpg
Bernstein, P. L., Friedmann, E. and Malaspina, A. (2000). Animal-Assisted Therapy Enhances Resident Social Interaction and Initiation in Long-Term Care Facilities. Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of the Interaction of People and Animals, 13(4), 213-224.
Jorgenson, J. (2007). Therapeutic Use of Companion Animals in Health Care. The Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 29(3), 249-254. Doi: 10.1111/j.1547-5069.1997.tb00993.x
Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., Dura, J. R., Speicher, C. E., Trask, O. J. and Glaser, R. (1991). Spousal caregivers of dementia victims: longitudinal changes in immunity and health. Psychosomatic Medicine, 53(4), 345-362.
Lobo, A., Launer, L. J., Fratiglioni, L., Andersen, K., Di Carlo, A., Breteler, M. M. B., Copeland, J. R. M., Dartigues, J. F., Jagger, C., Martinez-Lage, J., Soininen, H. and Hofman, A. (2000). Prevalence of dementia and major subtypes in Europe: A collaborative study of population-based cohorts. Neurologic Diseases in the Elderly Research Group,
Motomura, N., Yagi, T. and Ohyama, H. (2004). Animal assisted therapy for people with dementia. The Official Journal of the Japanese Psychogeriatric Society, 4(2), 40-42. Doi: 10.1111/j.1479-8301.2004.00062.x
Odendaai, J. S. J. (2000). Animal-assisted therapy – magic or medicine? Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 49(4), 275-280.
Palley, L. S., O’Rourke, P. P. and Niemi, S. M. (2010). Mainstreaming animal-assisted theray. ILAR Journal, 51(3), 199-207.
Richeson, N. E. (2003). Effects of animal-assisted therapy on agitated behaviours and social interaction of older adult with dementia. American Journal Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias. Doi: 10.1177/153331750301800610