Should People With Dementia Have Cats?

It can be difficult to decide if pets should be left with someone suffering from dementia. Here is my experience.

Should people with dementia have cats? By:
Should people with dementia have cats? By: selmerv

Iris was our gift to Mom that year. A gentle, matronly blue-cream tortie-point Siamese, she had the most incredibly soulful purple-blue eyes. They truly were as flower-like as her name.

Stormy was ruddy Abyssinian. We got her as a pal for Iris. She was a sleek, muscular girl and pure energy in cat form. She, too, lived up to her name.

Dawnie was, of course, mine. But my mother had stayed with the petite red Abyssinian, comforting her when she went into labor, and Dawnie never forgot that. She always made a point of greeting Mom whenever she came over.

A Cat’s Sixth Sense

Looking back, I really think that the cats picked up on Mom’s dementia long before we did. Dawnie just stopped going to her. She seemed to sense that the woman who had been so kind to her was slipping away and, cat-like, was wary.

Stormy had it the worst. My mother complained about her constantly. She took to yelling and swatting at Stormy — who, in turn, became so miserable, she took to bullying Iris.

Don’t Miss: Keeping the Peace in a Multi-Cat Household

Often, I’d find Stormy hiding up in the rafters over my dad’s old workbench in the cellar. Standing on a chair, I’d stroke her and talk to her for a while. Once she seemed more relaxed, I’d ease her off the rafters and hold her. At the time, I thought she was simply reacting to a break-in earlier in the fall.

Mom kept snapping at the Aby. I offered to take her, but my mother wouldn’t hear of it.

That summer, both cats went in for a routine dental cleaning. Stormy’s heart stopped almost as soon as she went under anesthesia, and they were unable to save her.

Iris the Caretaker

Mom was perfectly happy with just Iris. Even as the dementia progressed, she never showed anger toward Iris as she had toward Stormy. She talked to her constantly. It didn’t matter if her words no longer made sense: Like any Siamese, Iris would answer her back and at length.

Iris is depicted in this painting by Sally Logue.
Iris is depicted in this painting by Sally Logue.

At some point each night, Iris would head over to the stairs. Mom would slowly follow her up to her bedroom. Iris would stay with her until she woke up and went into one of her crying rages.

The cat would then high-tail it downstairs and sit with Mishka, Mom’s companion. As my mother drifted further away from us, Iris really did seem to be the only one who could reach her.

Finally, a stroke sent Mom to a convalescent home. Iris came to live with us. Sadly, she was with us for only a year before cancer took her. But it was a wonderful year for her — peaceful and filled with lots of new cat friends. I like to think we paid her back in part for all the care she took of Mom.

Should People With Dementia Have Cats?

Animals definitely help people suffering from dementia. Years ago, at a Pets Day at a local convalescent home, I saw one woman with Alzheimer’s come walking in with a stuffed animal — a white cat with multicolored speckles all over it and black cross-stitched eyes.

A volunteer came over to her with a Cairn terrier someone had brought in. The woman reached for the dog and held him protectively against her chest. She didn’t want to give him up, even when the elderly woman sitting next to her offered her back the toy cat that had been so very real to her before.

The Best Policy

The family and/or companions need to monitor the situation, of course. Sometimes I’d find Iris shut up in a bedroom. And one time I pulled into the driveway just as Iris was getting ready to step out through a door Mom had left open. You have to be ready to swoop in at a moment’s notice and make drastic changes. Yes, Stormy died of natural causes. But she — and my mother — probably would’ve been much happier if I’d followed my gut and taken her.

Ultimately, it depends on the cat. Some, like Iris, are low-keyed and can deal with the mood fluctuations. Others simply can’t. When it does work, however, you’ve got a feline lifeline for a person who desperately needs one.

T.J. Banks

View posts by T.J. Banks
T.J. Banks is the author of several books, including Catsong, a collection of her best cat stories, which was the winner of a Merial Human–Animal Bond Award. A contributing editor to laJoie, T.J. has received writing awards from the Cat Writers’ Association (CWA), ByLine and The Writing Self. Her writing has been widely anthologized.

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