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A Toy Pet May Ease Anxiety in People With Alzheimer’s

December 17, 2021

Anyone who has ever loved a pet knows how comforting a furry companion can be. And specially trained therapy pets are an increasingly common sight at nursing homes and hospitals, where studies have shown they may ease anxiety and boost mood among patients.

But for someone with Alzheimer’s disease, caring for a pet can be an unrealistic responsibility, particularly in the advanced stages of the illness. Furthermore, animal therapy is not widely available for frequent visits.

A new study from Florida Atlantic University suggests a more practical alternative. It found that a furry, interactive robotic pet improved mood and boosted cognition among people with Alzheimer’s disease who were attending an adult day care center. The study was small, but it underscores the critical importance that pets can play in improving our daily lives.

Depression, anxiety and aggression are common problems in people with Alzheimer’s disease. Often these symptoms are treated with potent antipsychotics, sedatives and antidepressant drugs, which can have debilitating, and even dangerous, side effects. Such adverse effects might lead, for example, to an increased risk of falls and, in the worst cases, a premature death.

The robotic therapeutic pets “offer a way to address symptoms naturally and without the use of pharmacological treatments, which may or may not be effective and have possible detrimental side effects,” said the study’s lead author, Bryanna Streit LaRose, who was a doctoral student at the university’s Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing when the study was done.

For the study, published in the journal Issues in Mental Health Nursing, researchers assessed mood, behavioral symptoms and memory and thinking skills among 12 people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s at an adult day care center. Participants were told their “pet” was a robot and not a live animal. Each of them picked a name for their cat, which was fitted with a collar with a personalized name tag. The soft robot animals could meow, cuddle and roll over in response to being stroked.

The researchers met with study participants individually and in groups over the course of 12 visits, where they observed interactions between the people with Alzheimer’s and their “pets.”

When first given the cats, two of the participants were initially startled when the cat meowed or moved, but their fear quickly dissipated, and all of the participants eagerly anticipated subsequent group sessions with their cats. During group sessions, some of the participants were so eager to hold their cats that the researchers handed them out before the whole group had gotten there.

Visits began with participants talking about pets they had loved in the past. While holding the cat, one person said “I have a companion again,” and another told the cat, “I like you very much, do you want to go home with me? We could be very happy together and have a good time.” Participants repeatedly said the animals made them happy and feel good. One participant’s son said that his father had been acting aggressively earlier in the week, but was much calmer when holding his cat. Another woman said her mother slept with her cat during a recent hospitalization. Two of the participants had earlier said they preferred dogs over cats, but when playing with the robots, said they would make an exception for their cat.

All the study participants received a “pet,” then met twice a week in a group for 30 minutes. By the end of the study period, which lasted for 12 meetings, participants with the “pets” showed fewer signs of depression and higher scores on tests of mood. They also scored slightly higher on the Mini Mental State Exam, a common test of thinking and memory skills in those with Alzheimer’s disease.

By using therapeutic pets instead of live pets, there was no concern about the safety of the pet, feeding them, taking them outside, or making sure they are up-to-date with their vaccines. In addition, there were no fears about participant safety because of possible pet aggression, allergies, tripping over them and the costs associated with caring for a live animal.

“In addition to improving mood, behaviors and cognition, these robotic pet cats provided our participants with an alternative way to express themselves,” said the researchers. “Importantly, improving overall mood and behavior in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias may also improve quality of life for their caregivers and family members.”

Other studies have shown that dolls can provide a source of comfort for both men and women with Alzheimer’s disease. Dolls have been shown to ease anxiety and agitation, increase happiness and mood, boost energy levels and socialization, increase appetite, and decrease wandering for some people with Alzheimer’s

But doll therapy, like stuffed animal therapy, is not for everyone. Experts advise that if a loved one with animal wants to hold a doll or stuffed animal, let them, but don’t force it on them. If someone refers to the toy as a child, don’t argue; let them. Be flexible, and aware that someone with Alzheimer’s might become very concerned about where the doll or toy is, and who is caring for it. If you think toy therapy might be right for you and a loved one, it is a safe and fairly risk-free alternative to try.

By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by Marc Flajolet, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.

Source: Bryanna Streit LaRose, Lisa Kirk Wiese, María de los Ángeles Ortega Hernández. “Improving Behavioral and Psychological Symptoms and Cognitive Status of Participants With Dementia Through the Use of Therapeutic Interactive Pets.” Issues in Mental Health Nursing, November 2021.  Florida Atlantic University.

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