Can pet therapy help patients with dementia?

Research shows interaction with dogs reduced agitation levels in sufferers

The first reported use of therapy animals dates back to the 1800s when Florence Nightingale observed that small animals helped ease distress among patients in mental health settings.

Peata, the Irish pet therapy service, was established in 1996. For the past two decades this voluntary association has provided a pet therapy service to nursing homes and other residential care settings. It aims to promote an awareness of the benefits people derive from pets and further the understanding of the relationship between people and pets.

John Bainbridge, a veterinary surgeon in Dublin, is a founder member and the current chair of Peata. He believes the presence of an animal is beneficial for residents, staff and visitors in a healthcare setting.

He explains that a dog can often be the conduit for relationships, helping to open up communication between staff members, patients and their visitors.


Margot Wrigley, consultant in old age psychiatry and national clinical adviser and clinical programme group lead for mental health in the HSE, works with Peata as an assessor. She regularly carries out assessments of pet owners and their animals to ensure they are both suitable to become Peata volunteers.

Better interaction

A number of years ago, Dr Wrigley carried out research on the benefits of pet therapy among the residents of the long-stay unit for people with dementia in Connolly Hospital in Dublin.

For the study, researchers carried out baseline measurements of residents’ interaction with others and challenging behaviour and analysed those results to see if there were any changes after they had interacted with a therapy dog.

The results showed that interaction with a therapy dog increased a person’s level of interaction and reduced agitation.

“We find, in general, that people look forward to the visit and they get to know the person visiting; they get to know the dog and the dog is almost a conduit to conversation,” Dr Wrigley explains.

“Those of us who are involved in Peata, [it is] not so much that we want to have amazing therapeutic benefits; [rather] that we want to improve the quality of life of people who may be elderly, physically disabled or have problems with dementia that would enjoy someone visiting the unit with the dog.”

She said she would recommend healthcare facilities to have regular visits from a therapy dog.

Dr Wrigley says one of the things that can pose a huge difficulty for elderly people entering a nursing home is leaving their own pets at home and the worry about who will care for them.

“If you look at the Irish population, there is a great tradition of dog owning and it is a great loss . . . people do miss that greatly and [having a therapy animal is of] great benefit in terms of the ethos within a residential facility.”

Peata is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a service of thanksgiving and blessing of the animals in Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin on Tuesday, October 4th, the feast of the patron saint of animals, St Francis of Assisi. Everyone is welcome, especially those with four legs. Visit