Background: Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is gaining popularity as part of therapy programs in residential aged care facilities. Humans and pet dogs respond to quiet interaction with a lowering of blood pressure and an increase in neurochemicals associated with relaxation and bonding. These effects may be of benefit in ameliorating behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia (BPSD).
Methods: Medline, PsychInfo and CINAHL databases (1960-2005) were searched for papers on AAT or pets and dementia. Publications of controlled trials that measured the effect of AAT for dementia were reviewed.
Results: Several small studies suggest that the presence of a dog reduces aggression and agitation, as well as promoting social behavior in people with dementia. One study has shown that aquaria in dining rooms of dementia care units stimulate residents to eat more of their meals and to gain weight but is limited by the small number of facilities studied. There is preliminary evidence that robotic pets may provide pleasure and interest to people with dementia.
Conclusions: Current literature suggests that AAT may ameliorate BPSD, but the duration of the beneficial effect has not been explored. The relative benefits of "resident" versus "visiting" pet dogs are unclear and are confounded by the positive effect of pet interaction on staff or caregivers. Further research on the potential benefits of AAT is recommended.