Pet therapy

Key points

  • Pet therapy is a guided, supervised interaction between a person and a trained animal for therapeutic purposes.
  • Evidence from five systematic reviews found that pet therapy improved mood, response, engagement, and interaction, and reduced depression and the use of pain medication among people living with dementia.
  • The impact of pet therapy on outcomes such as responsive behaviours, quality of life, and agitation was inconclusive.
  • Studies that assessed the relationship between pet therapy and outcomes such as social functioning, and people‚Äôs ability to manage self-care found no effect.

Pet therapy (or animal-assisted therapy) is a complementary therapy that includes the use of animals as part of treatment. Pet therapy is designed to promote improvements in physical, social, emotional, or cognitive functions for people living with dementia, and can be provided in one-on-one or group settings. [1] Animals used in these interventions vary but often include dogs, cats, horses, aquatic animals, and sometimes robotic or toy animals. [2]

This evidence theme on pet therapy is a summary of one of the key topics identified by a scoping review of dementia research. If you need more information on this topic, try using the PubMed search below.

We found five systematic reviews that examined the impact of pet therapy for people living with dementia. These reviews found improvements in:

  • Mood [1-3]
  • Response [2]
  • Engagement [2]
  • Interaction. [2]

As well as reductions in:

  • Depression [1, 2, 4]
  • The use of pain medication. [2]

The evidence of the effectiveness of pet therapy is inconclusive for:

  • Responsive behaviours [1-3]
  • Quality of life [1-3]
  • Agitation [1, 3, 4]
  • Anxiety. [5]

This is because some studies report the benefits of pet therapy for these outcomes, while others report no benefits [1]

Currently, there is no clear evidence of benefit for:

  • Social functioning [1]
  • Ability to complete daily activities. [1]

In other words, studies have assessed the relationship between pet therapy and these outcomes, but no benefit was found.

One review compared the effects of live animals and toy/robotic animals. While engagement with live animals is often slightly different to toy/robotic animals, studies have shown no differences between the therapies across major outcomes (such as physical, social, emotional, or cognitive outcomes). [1]

    The reviews highlighted concerns about the methods used in some of the studies. This reduces the degree of certainty we might have about the benefits of pet therapy. For example:

    • Interventions were only conducted in residential care, so there was no evidence about how beneficial pet therapy may be for people living in the community.
    • Some studies only had a small number of participants. [1, 3, 5]
    • Potentially important outcomes were not assessed (adverse events, animal-related outcomes). [1]
    • Be familiar with pet therapy and the potential benefits and limitations for people living with dementia.
    • See the resources provided below.
    • Consider implementing a pet therapy program.
    • Contact an accredited pet engagement organisation.
    • See the resources provided below.
    1. Lai NM, Chang SMW, Ng SS, Tan SL, Chaiyakunapruk N, Stanaway F. Animal-assisted therapy for dementia. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2019;11(11):25.
    2. Aarskog NK, Hunskar I, Bruvik F. Animal-assisted interventions with dogs and robotic animals for residents with dementia in nursing homes: A systematic review. Phys Occup Ther Geriatr. 2019;37(2):77-93.
    3. Lu LC, Lan SH, Hsieh YP, Lin LY, Lan SJ, Chen JC. Effectiveness of companion robot care for dementia: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Innov Aging. 2021;5(2):igab013.
    4. Wang G, Albayrak A, van der Cammen TJM. A systematic review of non-pharmacological interventions for BPSD in nursing home residents with dementia: From a perspective of ergonomics. Int Psychogeriatr. 2019;31(8):1137-49.
    5. Brown Wilson C, Arendt L, Nguyen M, Scott TL, Neville CC, Pachana NA. Nonpharmacological interventions for anxiety and dementia in nursing homes: A systematic review. Gerontologist. 2019;59(6):e731-e42.
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    Connect to PubMed evidence

    This PubMed topic search is limited to home care and residential aged care settings. You can choose to view all citations or citations to articles available free of charge.

    Selected resources

    Information Sheet
    Animal assisted or pet engagement in dementia care

    This helpsheet from Dementia Support Australia outlines how engaging with animals can help the person with dementia express their emotions, feel validated, provide an opportunity for reminiscence and more.

    Updated 03 Aug 2022
    Information Sheet
    The use of simulated pets in dementia care

    This helpsheet from Dementia Support Australia provides information on why it may be appropriate to introduce a simulated pet to a person with dementia, who is likely to benefit, how to introduce a simulated pet to a person with dementia, and interaction activities and precautions.

    Updated 08 Aug 2022
    Medication: It's your choice webinar 5 - Alternative approaches and the positive impacts of design

    In this webinar from the Older Persons Advocacy Network, the experts on our panel discuss why investigating causes of changes in behaviour is essential for providing better outcomes. They will also explore some alternatives to medications, and how they can be integrated into care environments. (1 h 4 m)

    Updated 07 Jun 2023