A Guide to Pets & Animal Therapy for ASD Families

By Elemy Pediatric ASD Behavioral Health |

For children on the autism spectrum, pets can be immensely helpful. The lessons learned by caring for a pet translate into virtually every area of life. Animals can have such an impact that many therapists offer animal therapy to their clients.

While applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy is the leading approach to helping people with autism, supplemental therapies often support emotional and behavioral change and growth, especially for children.

A pet or service animal can help a child with autism to develop social skills, maintain scheduling and routine, and relax when stressed. The bond between humans and animals has been shown, through many psychological studies, to improve mental and physical health.

If your child is on the autism spectrum, you may consider getting them an animal. There are a few different groups of animals you may consider, such as:

  • Standard pets.
  • Emotional support animals.
  • Service animals.

Depending on your child’s needs, wants, and the severity of their autism, you can find an animal that meets your emotional and physical needs. There are several things to consider before you find an animal to help your child, including how severe their autism is, what type of support they might need, and, most importantly, what kind of animal they would love the most.

The Psychological Benefits of Animal & Human Interactions

Almost everyone benefits from their connection with their pet. Scientific research shows that having a close connection with a pet can slow your heart rate, lower your blood pressure, and adjust how your brain releases hormones, especially dopamine and cortisol.

Dopamine is associated with positive feelings like happiness, and pets have been shown to make the brain release more dopamine. In contrast, cortisol is associated with stress. Having a pet to play with or sit in your lap has been shown to reduce how much cortisol your brain releases.

Most importantly, loving and caring for another creature who shows you love in return releases oxytocin, a brain chemical associated with emotional bonding. When the brain releases oxytocin, even more stress and anxiety are alleviated.

The release of oxytocin is also associated with feeling empathy, which can increase social behaviors. For people on the autism spectrum, who struggle with expressing themselves socially, feeling empathy toward a pet who shows unconditional love can bridge the gap to expressing connection with other people.

People on the autism spectrum, especially children, are more susceptible to feeling depressed, anxious, and isolated. One of the diagnostic criteria for autism is struggling with social skills, often because language and physical cues can be easily missed.

This may make someone with autism retreat into themselves, pulling away from social contact. It might make the person feel sad or scared, especially when they meet new people or leave a familiar environment. Having a pet or an emotional support animal can give that person a sense of caring and connection that they may not get with other people.

Children, including children on the autism spectrum, can learn personal responsibility from having a pet. They learn a regular routine of feeding, walks, cleaning, and other caretaking duties that translate into helping them care for themselves later in life.

If your child often feels insecure because of interactions at school, their pet can support them by giving them unconditional love. Previous research shows that children, whether they were on the autism spectrum or not, developed better social skills sooner when they had a pet from a younger age.

The Difference Between Pets, Support Animals & Service Animals

Before looking for a pet to support your child, it is important to understand exactly what type of animal you need or want. This is not just about looking for a specific breed of cat or dog, but also about determining if your child might benefit from another type of animal therapy, like an emotional support animal, a service animal, or animal therapy that occurs in specific sessions outside your home.

Animal-assisted therapy may be a great support option for people on the autism spectrum. A meta-analysis of 49 different scientific studies reported that people with various medical conditions, autism, or behavioral struggles had positive overall outcomes, including better emotional well-being and regulation. Effects of addiction, schizophrenia, and chronic depression were also managed, so people with intense emotional and behavioral concerns reported feeling more at ease.

Types of animal-assisted therapy include:

  • Emotional support animals. A dog, cat, potbelly pig, miniature pony, or other animal is chosen for their empathetic characteristics. The emotional support animal lives with you in your house and stays near the side of the person who needs support, like your child with autism.
  • Specialized therapy. Therapy occurs in a different location, like a ranch, where the person may learn how to care for, ride, or even train an animal like a horse. This type of therapy may include time after the session or with your child’s ABA therapist to discuss the outcomes of the therapy, including how it felt or what your child learned
  • Service animals. Most often, this is a dog, which is trained to support physical independence for people with specific verbal or physical disabilities. The dog may find help in an emergency, determine when it is safe to cross the street, or perform other functions, which may include emotional support.

If you are not looking just for a pet, but a service animal, emotional support animal, or animal-assisted therapy, it is important to look for specific certifications and associated professionals. Animal-assisted therapy is often performed in conjunction with a licensed therapist or medical provider. Your child’s ABA therapist may be able to help you find someone with the right credentials.

Service animals and emotional support animals have specific, formal training and must be certified by a licensed professional trainer and therapist. While many service animals come from animal shelters, they are chosen for certain characteristics that make them empathetic and easy to train. Because service animals are forms of medical support, you may be able to get a prescription for one from your physician or therapist.

A service animal, like a dog, will most often offer emotional support. For example, they can accompany your child into situations that might otherwise be stressful, like a dental appointment, a school field trip, or shopping in a crowded area. Support animals may be specifically trained to lean against your child when they begin to feel or act anxious, while a service animal may get your attention so you can help calm your child.

Dogs: The Most Popular Pet or Therapy Animal

All kinds of pets can help your child with autism. Some studies show that children who spend even a little time with an animal, like a guinea pig, have some symptoms of autism temporarily improve. In comparison, toys (even therapeutic toys that help to teach emotional regulation or social skills) have less of an effect.

It is important for all parents who have children with autism to consider which type of animal might be the best for their child. Whether you seek out a pet or a service animal, there are several options, from dogs and cats to fish, lizards, and even horses.

One of the most loyal, loving pets is the domestic canine, or dog. A survey published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing found that children with autism had the strongest positive interactions with dogs. About 7 in 10 parents reported that their children enjoyed spending time with or around dogs, even if the family did not have a dog.

Another study on parents’ experiences with service dogs and their children with autism found that both children and their parents benefitted from the presence of the dog, both at home and in public. Parents believed their children were safer with the dog around and felt more competent in being around their child in public. They also reported that others in public were more respectful and responsible toward their child in the presence of the service animal.

Not all children will react well to dogs, however. You may want to find a friend or family member who has a dog that likes children and see if your child responds well to the animal’s presence. If your child can be around noises and crowds, consider taking them to a dog adoption day at a pet store or animal shelter to see if they are interested in the animals.

These are other things to consider when choosing the right animal.

  • Is your child allergic to animals, dust, or something else that might be made worse by dog hair?
  • Are you and your family able to care for an animal, including the necessities of vet visits, food, and grooming?
  • Are you able to train the dog, so you and your child can comfortably handle the animal in public or outside?
  • Can your child emotionally manage sudden changes in behavior or attention, like the dog making sudden movements or barking?

Even if your child sometimes enjoys being around animals, they may not be suited for constant animal attention or care in the home. Having a pet, even a well-trained service animal, means your attention will be divided away from your child. It is possible that your child has serious enough physical or emotional needs that this is not supportive for your or your child.

If this is the case, you may consider animal-assisted therapy instead. Your child can spend some time around an animal that is dedicated to paying attention to them, with the ability to leave the therapy session and return to their unchanged home environment.

The Best Dog Breeds

There are so many breeds of dogs, it can be difficult to keep track. Many of these breeds developed because breeders looked for specific traits, such as help herding sheep, hunting birds, guarding territory, rescuing disaster survivors, and doing other jobs. Many modern breeds are simply good emotional companions.

Here are the most recommended dog breeds for companionship:

  • Golden retrievers
  • Labrador retrievers
  • Labradoodles

These dogs have high intelligence and empathy, so they are easy to train, calm, and pleasant companions. If you get a pet from an animal shelter, know that many mixed breeds make excellent pets too.

Ask the shelter some questions about the dog’s history.

  • Has the animal been around children before, and were they a good companion for the child?
  • Does the animal tend to frighten easily or become defensive?
  • Does the animal make a lot of noise, such as barking at passing cars?
  • Has the animal been around other animals, including cats, pet rodents, fish, or other dogs?
  • Has the animal become fearful around other humans, such as adult men?

Finding the right dog for your child might take a little time. You can reach out to local shelters, service animal agencies, or even therapists that specialize in treating children with autism for help finding dogs who love children.

Other Animals Make Excellent Pets or Therapy Animals

While dogs are the most popular pet, therapy animal, and service animal, many other animals can work well with children, provide emotional support, and help children learn new skills like caretaking. Cats, fish, birds, hamsters, guinea pigs, potbelly pigs, and even miniature horses can all be trained for therapy duties. They also just make good household companions.

If your child is not interested in dogs, or is even afraid of dogs, they may benefit from another type of pet in your home or another type of animal-assisted intervention.

Cats & Children With Autism

When you think of household pets, cats are often viewed as the polar opposite of dogs. They are seen as more independent, less friendly, and less bonded to their human owners. This is not true for many cats. Cats often love to play, cuddle, and spend time with people.

Children on the autism spectrum may prefer cats to dogs because they do not need constant attention. They also enjoy different kinds of play and food interactions, and they do not require walking.

A study published in 2020 found that many children with autism prefer the “gaze” of a cat to a dog because it felt less intrusive. Cats rarely stare directly at humans, and they often blink slowly when they are relaxed and enjoying the company of people around them. In contrast, dogs were reported to have a “long gaze,” which could be more disconcerting for some children on the autism spectrum, especially children who struggle with eye contact.

A 2018 survey involved parents’ reports of children with autism around adult cats. The first part of the survey found that the cats and the children tended to interact positively. The second part, which involved phone conversations with parents whose children were on the autism spectrum, found that parents thought cats were a soothing presence, providing protection and guardianship.

The second phase’s survey participants were divided into groups based on the severity of their child’s autism. Parents did report that when children had more severe symptoms, cats tended to be moderately affectionate and did not interact as frequently. Some cats were reported to exhibit a small amount of aggression toward the child with autism, but this was not correlated to the severity of the condition.

Like finding the right dog, it is important to find a cat who has the right personality to be around your child with autism. Some studies report that cats adopted into the family as kittens function better as companions for your child.

Raising a kitten and training them can be an additional burden, so you may want to ask animal shelters if they have adult cats who are used to being around children. You can also work with your child’s ABA therapist to find service or therapy cats that are specifically used to being around children with autism.

Service Animal Organizations

While you can ask for recommendations from your child’s ABA therapist or even their pediatrician, you can also contact organizations that train and certify therapy or service animals to discuss your options and get your questions answered. Here are some of the leading organizations in the United States:

You can also contact the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) regarding service animals, emotional support animals, and the best pets for your child on the autism spectrum. AVMA supports the legal definition of therapy and service animals based on requirements in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Finding the Right Animal Companion for Your Child & Your Family

From pets to service animals, animals can help your child relax, feel safe and cared for, and even guide them to interact with other people in their environment.

Studies into support animals show that people’s perceptions and behaviors toward others change when there are animals around, especially pets like dogs or cats. Many people tend to have lower stress in social situations when animals are around, compared to other humans. This is especially true if the individual tends to be ostracized or feel isolated.

Several surveys indicate that animal therapies or household pets can be great sources of support for people with autism. Many of the surveys indicated that people on the autism spectrum who already liked animals got the most benefit out of therapy animals, pets, or emotional support animals. Those who did not like animals or were afraid of them did not benefit.

If your child already shows an interest in animals, getting a pet, emotional support animal, or service animal may help them. If they are not interested in animals, or they show fear around some types of animals, there are many other therapies you can add to ABA treatment so your child feels safe and supported.

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