Pet Therapy for Children with Special Needs
Most children love animals, are even drawn to them, and are often more open and less afraid when in
their presence. This is why using animals, and pets specifically, in therapy for children with disabilities
can be a powerful tool. Children with disabilities like cerebral palsy can benefit from animal-assisted, or
pet, therapy for both physical issues as well as mental, behavioral, and emotional.
What is Pet Therapy?
Pet therapy, also called animal-assisted therapy , is a broad category of alternative therapies. It can be as
simple as bringing a therapy pet to a hospital to visit with children, or may involve ongoing therapy
sessions with one or more animals present. In its simplest form, pet therapy has the general purpose of
cheering people up and making people feel comforted or happy.
Pet therapy can also be more complex, involving specific therapies, assisted by animals and used for
children with certain disabilities and special needs. For example, a dog can be used to support a child
with mobility issues as he learns to walk during physical therapy sessions. Equine therapy is a specific
kind of animal therapy that uses horse care and riding to help children heal.
Benefits of Working with Animals
Anyone who loves animals knows that there are intangible benefits of being around dogs, cats, and other
pets: improved mood and reduced stress, for example. These are important benefits that can help a child struggling with a disability like cerebral palsy or with a mental illness like depression or anxiety. Studies have also found that animals can have a positive benefit on physical health, reducing blood pressure and even extending life expectancy for people with chronic illnesses.
How Pet Therapy Helps Disabled Children
While these benefits are important for anyone, pet therapy can also provide specific benefits for special
needs children. Physical therapy can be done successfully without an animal present, but when a child
can use a sturdy and friendly dog for balance and support instead of a walker, she is likely to have less
stress and to be more excited about and open to the therapy.
Another important benefit is related to emotional health. Children living with disabilities are more
vulnerable to depression, anxiety, and social isolation. Working with animals can help them by providing a mood boost and by increasing self-confidence and self-esteem. These benefits are likely to enhance
other areas of their lives.
Service animals are also important for many children with disabilities. Having a service dog or other
animal that lives with a child can provide all these same benefits but on a constant basis. The dog can act as a mobility aid, a social and emotional support, or a seeing or hearing animal.
Pet therapy is getting increased attention in the treatment of children with special needs. Evidence is
mounting that working with animals, using specific animal-assisted therapy, having a service animal, or
just visiting with a therapy animal can have a big and positive impact. From better confidence and
emotional stability to greater involvement in important therapies, animals and pet therapy are important and are likely to be increasingly used for children with a variety of needs.