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Alzheimer's Disease and Animal Assisted Therapy

Updated on September 23, 2015

What Happens When a Person has Alzheimer's?

Alzheimer's is said to be the most common form of dementia, which leads to the loss of memory and other cognitive abilities. It is an irreversible and fatal degenerative disease of the brain that is believed to be caused by the build-up of beta-amyloid proteins, resulting in nerve damage. Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine discovered that the protein begins to destroy synapses before it clumps into plaques that ultimately cause the nerve cells to die. The disease is named after the German physician, Alois Alzheimer, who was the first to have recorded it in 1906.

It is commonly known that the symptoms of Alzheimer's include memory changes that effect the execution of day to day chores, difficulty in negotiating spatial relationships and confusion with time. However, the psychological changes that a patient undergoes are less known among those who do not have experience with someone who has been diagnosed with the disorder.

Psychological and Behavioral Changes in Alzheimer's

It is said that patients of Alzheimer's exhibit Behavioral and Psychological symptoms of Dementia (BPSD). Some of the central characteristics are anxiety, aggression and psychosis, as summarized by the Alzheimer's Association. While these symptoms are rather insidious and could be difficult for caregivers to cope with, the good news is that they can be managed. The management of BPSD requires an understanding of the complex interplay of physical, psychological, interpersonal, social and environmental factors, states the International Psychogeriatric Association. At least some of these factors can be extraneously controlled, thereby managing the symptoms effectively.

Moreover, a customized blend of antidepressants, anti-anxiety and anti-psychotic drugs are usually administered to help patients with BPSD. However, these medicines are not without side effects of their own and can reduce the Quality of Life of an Alzheimer's patient.

Animal Assisted Therapy or Pet Therapy

The healing powers of the animal-human bond have been observed in several different fields. It has been seen to have remarkable effects on children who have suffered abuse or neglect, cancer patients and war veterans, according to the American Humane Association. Researchers, such as Erika Friedmann and Heesook Son, have reviewed 28 AAT studies, published between 1997 and 2009, and covered several diseases, including Alzheimer's, Schizophrenia, Developmental disorders and Down's Syndrome. They summarized the research data regarding the human health benefits of animal-assisted therapy in terms of improvements in mental, social, and physiologic health status. They also reviewed measures that can be undertaken to enable safe pet ownership for the immuno-compromised.

Several other researchers too have concluded in favor of Pet Therapy in alleviating psychological and behavioral symptoms, but safety measures have often been disclaimed by them, in using animals as therapists.

The Effects of Pet Therapy in Alzheimer's Disease

There have been several benefits of pet therapy in Alzheimer's disease (AD), especially in alleviating BPSD symptoms and reducing the levels of medicines that are required to tackle emotional and behavioral issues. Not only does interacting with a pet help a patient with BPSD to socialize better, it also helps to alleviate the aggression and agitation that AD patients often experience. A research study on The Effects of Pet Therapy on the Social Behavior of Institutionalized Alzheimer's Clients records observations that took place on three separate occasions (absence of dog, temporary presence of the dog, and permanent placement of the dog) in both group and individual settings.

The results showed that the presence of the dog increased the number of total social behaviors of the AD clients. There are several long-term Alzheimer's care facilities that offer pet therapy by way of interaction with trained dogs and cats. Many have internalized the process on the premise that “a house is not a home without a pet” as articulated by the Seacrest Village Alzheimer's program.


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