The age-old phrase “a dog is a man’s best friend” is proving its worth in health settings – the therapeutic benefits of pets is becoming evident, particularly in dementia care.
Pets therapy is by no means a new concept. Florence Nightingale was an early pioneer of animal-companion therapy, having famously observed that pets make an “excellent companion for the sick”. Sigmund Freud was also known to be an advocate and is reported to have brought Jofi, his chow dog, to therapy sessions as he believed him to be a calming influence.
At Royal United Hospital Bath Trust, we work with the charity Pets as Therapy to bring this aspect of care to our patients. We’ve used several therapy dogs over the past few years – most recently Dougie, an Italian spinone. Dougie’s impact on patients is striking. A recent visit resulted in a patient who had barely communicated during her stay becoming instantly animated and talkative. Patients who display aggression have visibly changed their behaviour in his presence and, in an atmosphere that can be highly charged, his presence has visibly lowered levels of distress. Dougie is a great conversation starter, reminding patients of past pets and sparking discussion between staff and carers.
Providing an appropriate level of emotional support is as important as creating the right physical care environment for those with dementia. Therapies involving animals and music are becoming an increasingly common part of holistic care.
There has been much research into the effect music therapy has on people with dementia. Supporters point to the “first in, last out” theory of memory breakdown; auditory receptive systems in the brain develop early in the womb, which may go some way to explaining why older patients with dementia continue to be responsive to music.
The music workshops we run through our Soundbite Programme are a powerful tool for unlocking memories and reaching parts of the brain in ways that other forms of communication cannot. There is a sense of cheer when patients gather to sing songs that remind them of days gone by.
The number of people living with dementia is expected to reach one million by 2021. While there’s no definitive approach to treating this degenerative disease, our experience is that there are clear cognitive, social and emotional benefits to complementary therapies that stimulate and engage patients.
These types of therapies are often criticised for having no scientific basis and there is concern about the infection-control implications of having a dog in a clinical environment. All Pets as Therapy dogs must pass an assessment to check their temperament and be homoeopathically protected or fully vaccinated, wormed and protected against fleas. The handler is required to follow full infection-control procedures upon entering a ward, so must wash their hands and be bare below the elbow.
Not every patient will be responsive to an animal, or want to take part in music workshops. However, many patients do benefit and it’s important to take steps to create the right environment – these therapies can be a very effective piece of the complex jigsaw of care.
Dr Chris Dyer is consultant geriatrician, Astrid Siddorn is dementia co-ordinator; both at Royal United Hospital Bath Trust