I’ve faced a number of tough choices in my life, but taking away my mother’s dog was among the most difficult. My mother was always eccentric, but in 2011 her quirky charm began to dwindle away. What was originally diagnosed as mild cognitive impairment steadily progressed to Alzheimer’s dementia. My mother lost her ability to care for herself, but at the same time succeeded in training her golden doodle puppy “Golden Bear” to be aggressive towards her caregiver. Golden Bear was my mother’s best friend; losing her contributed to her severe loneliness and depression. However, moving Golden Bear to a new home was the right choice for the safety of my mother, her caregiver, and her dog. Pets can be tremendously effective in easing the behavioral and psychological symptoms associated with dementia, but the consequences of failed pet ownership for these individuals can potentially be catastrophic. Most people are familiar with the risks associated with animal bites or allergies.
In this article, I explore three lesser-known risks of pet ownership for seniors with dementia.
Zoonosis is a disease that can be transmitted between humans and animals. Some common infectious diseases include influenza, ringworm and Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). These illnesses are relatively benign for healthy individuals, but for seniors with compromised immune systems, the effects can be devastating.
Therapy dogs can act as carriers for bacterial and fungal infections. In an unpublished study by John Hopkins Hospital, researchers observed the interactions between animal therapy dogs and children receiving cancer treatment. The study measured visits in which the children interacted directly with the dogs, finding that these children were 6 times more likely to contract MRSA than the control group. Although the recommended sanitation precautions were taken, transmission of the bacterial infection proved unmanageable. (https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/16/3/09-1737_article)
Humans and animals can also give each other the flu. In 2009, an elderly woman in Iowa was hospitalized with complications from the H1N1 virus – “Swine Flu.” Days later her 13-year-old cat died from pneumonia, the same complication for which that woman was hospitalized. When examined, veterinarians found that the cat had contracted the same H1N1 virus as its owner. (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/therapy-dogs-can-spread-superbugs-to-kids-hospital-finds/)
Even in the cleanest of homes, transmission of diseases between animals and humans can take place, endangering both the senior and the pet.
2. Emotional Stress
Studies have shown that therapy animals pose significant symptomatic benefits to seniors with dementia. When an emotional attachment is present, pets decrease the amount of cortisol (the body’s stress hormone) and increase the amount of oxytocin released in the brain. (http://science.sciencemag.org/content/348/6232/333) However, the stress of caring for a pet can be detrimental to the health of a senior, potentially outweighing the therapeutic benefits of animal ownership.
Amplified cortisol has been proven dangerous to humans of all ages, but high stress is particularly detrimental to seniors with dementia. Nicholas J. Justice Ph.D, author of a 2018 study published by the US National Library of Medicine argues: “The physiological processes that stress drives have a serious detrimental effect on the ability [of seniors with dementia] to heal, cope and maintain a positive quality of life.” He concludes that “added stress drives progression of the disease and can exacerbate symptoms.” A neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s is particularly susceptible to further regression when the neural and endocrine pathways are activated by stress. In layman’s terms, pets can worsen the senior’s mental disease when they catalyze emotional stress. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5991350/)
The progression of dementia often features a gradual onset of states of confusion followed by periods of lucidity. These moments of lucidity can make the senior – or their family members – believe that they are able to care for a pet. One must be wary of this illusion, for it’s not always obvious. For example, the constant worry that a pet hasn’t been fed or otherwise cared for can be a persistent source of stress for the patient. In the perplexing state between reality and psychosis, caring for a pet can become a net negative for the senior.
When the relationship between the cognitively impaired owner and the pet reaches its breaking point, removing the animal becomes inevitable. As I witnessed firsthand, this single event causes a tremendous amount of stress, worsening the disease state of the senior.
3. Neglect & Abuse
I saw first-hand the risk of animal abuse associated with my mother’s inability to care for her dog. As her cognitive decline worsened, she became decreasingly hygienic. Believing she had already cleaned her home and cleaned up after her pet, days and weeks would go by with dust, dirt, and animal wasted accumulating. The result was an unsanitary environment that posed a risk to any living being in the household.
This circumstance is not unique to my mother. Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia cause memory loss and delusions. Sufferers will commonly forget to feed and exercise their animals, resulting in malnourishment and dehydration. Many people have shared stories with me of how their loved ones overfed their pets, forgetting they had previously been fed. These pets developed chronic diseases associated with obesity such as diabetes, heart disease, and joint problems.
In my mother’s case, she stubbornly insisted everything was fine when it clearly wasn’t. In retrospect, I should have addressed the problem much sooner than I did. Allowing my mother to continue to live alone and care for her dog resulted in a life-threatening situation for her and her pet.
In my experience with my mother, the ultimate decision was difficult but clear. However, everyone’s journey with dementia is unique. In homes where the cognitively impaired senior is not the sole caretaker, pets can still be low risk, high reward companions. This is highly situational, and up to the discretion of those responsible for the caretaking of the senior to make the best decision. If you are aware and troubled by the living situation of a cognitively impaired senior and their animal, please take appropriate action. It could save the life of your loved one and their pet.
TomBot, Inc. creates robotic animal companions in an attempt to create a safe and effective alternative to live animals for the cognitively impaired.