Dogs, cats, and “pocket pets” like ferrets, birds, or lizards are therapeutic for children who struggle with any disability: physical, behavioral and developmental. A calm smiling dog, an affectionate cat, or a small pet they can hold is a great therapist. The right animal offers unconditional love and affection, and the right animal makes your child feel special. If you are considering animal therapy or a pet for your child, strategically pick the right animal. If your child will attend an animal therapy program, or you plan to select their own pet, monitor your child’s interactions when they are first introduced to the creature. Be honest with yourself, the animal you like may not be the best for your child. Hyperactive and barking dogs, aloof cats, fearful hamsters, and noisy birds don’t work and can be outright stressful. Pay attention to this—people are too often unaware how much negative energy fussy pets generate and how distracting and chaotic they can be.
Criteria for the right animal
- The animal’s natural manner fits your child’s emotional needs.
- Quiet, if child easily experience sensory overload;
- Uplifting and affectionate, traits that help a withdrawn or anxious child;
- Interactive, if your child needs to be drawn out or receive attention: a bird that speaks, or a dog that follows instructions;
- The animal bonds with your child and likes to be with them for long periods. The animal has a preference for your child.
- Your child is able to treat the pet humanely. Animals can be abused consciously or unconsciously by troubled children.
- You appreciate the animal too, and aren’t concerned about mess, smell, hair, or feathers in your home. You should consider yourself the one responsible for its care. This pet is a therapist first, not a lesson in responsibility for your child. They can learn responsibility later.
- The child’s pet should still be welcome and cared for if it doesn’t work out for your child. If it’s not wanted, consider a rescue shelter or humane society that can find another caring owner.
Most people are familiar with therapy dogs. Their natural affinity with humans, even untrained, is a reason that dogs are the most popular of pets. If you are interested in getting a puppy to train as a therapy dog, you can find instructions on how to train certified therapy dogs, and modify them to fit your home. Certified dogs need significantly more training because they can be used in nursing homes, hospitals, and schools. “How to train a therapy dog”
The parrots and parrot-like or hooked beak birds have marvelous personalities and bond for life. These colorful birds prefer not to fly, but instead spend their time socially with people, other birds, even dogs and cats! The best low-cost option is a parakeet, extremely low maintenance, and happily chirpy, easily tamed and easily trained to talk.
“Patients hold and stroke cockatiels so tame that they often fall asleep in a human lap.” Maureen Horton, the founder of “On a Wing and a Prayer” tells of “non-responsive patients in wheelchairs who suddenly begin speaking again while petting a cockatiel as their relatives weep at the transformation.” She described bringing her birds to visit a group of violent teenage delinquents who clamored to touch a cockatoo named Bela. “For a few minutes,” Horton says, “these hardened criminals became children again.”
— “On a Wing and a Prayer,” a pet-assisted therapy program, uses birds to visit patients.” Connie Cronley, Tulsapeople.com
Fish can’t be held, but few things beat the visual delight and serenity of a beautiful aquarium. Fish do have personalities and form interactive communities in a tank, which are fun to watch, and individuals are fun to name. There is a reason aquariums are commonly placed in waiting rooms and clinics, lobbies, and hospitals.
These are usually mammals that like to be cuddled and carried around, often in pockets: ferrets, mice, rats, gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs, and very small dogs. It is best to select a young animal that is calm and won’t bite, and handle it gently and often so that it becomes accustomed to being held. Challenges with many pocket pets include running away or escaping their enclosures, urine smell, and unwanted breeding. As the main caretaker, you will want to be comfortable with their needs.
Lizards are also excellent pets and demand little attention, and they are readily accepted by children. My bearded dragon, Spike, comes with me to my support groups. Dragons are a very docile species–safe with young children and popular with teens and parents. Other good species are anoles (often called chameleons), iguanas, and geckos.
“I’d have to say my Leopard Gecko Mindy is very much therapy for me. She really is my therapy lizard, she wants to sit with me when I’m upset and tolerates me, which even my two dogs and cat won’t. She’ll just find a place on me and curl up and be like “I’m here, I won’t leave you.””
–User name “Midori”, Herp Center Network
Properly trained horses are extraordinarily healing. certified horse therapy programs are considered medically effective treatment and often covered by health insurance. Horses benefit disabled children and teens across the board: those with physical disabilities such as paralysis and loss of limbs, mental/cognitive disabilities such as development disabilities and retardation, and children with mental and behavioral disorders. The horses are selected for their demeanor and trained to reliably respond appropriately to children who may misbehave. Therapists are specially trained also to collaborate with the horse as a team. Horses have a “large” serenity and a lack of concern with the child’s behavior. They are also intelligent and interactive like dogs, provide a warm soft hide to lean on, and they empower their riders. A child on a horse will connect with the animal’s rhythmic bodily movement, which stimulates the physical senses and keeps the child physically and mentally balanced. According to parents and children in these programs, horses change lives. New research proves horses are genuinely effective: Study Suggests That Equine Therapy is Effective (http://blogs.psychcentral.com/equine-therapy/2013/01/equine-therapy-effective-a-new-study-suggests-so/).
How has your child’s pet improved mental health?
Your comments help others who read this article.
The science behind animal therapy
Are dogs man’s best therapist?
Psychiatric Times. H. Steven Moffic, MD. February 29, 2012
Note: this is an excellent article by a psychiatrist who moved from disbelief to belief that dogs have a genuine therapeutic value, healing some of the most psychiatrically challenging children. http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/blog/moffic/content/article/10168/2040421
Children’s best friend, dogs help autistic children adapt (summary)
Journal: Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2011, Universite de Montreal
Dogs may not only be man’s best friend, they may also have a special role in the lives of children with special needs. According to a new study, specifically trained service dogs can help reduce the anxiety and enhance the socialization skills of children with Autism Syndrome Disorders (ASDs). The findings may lead to a relatively simple solution to help affected children and their families cope with these challenging disorders.
“Our findings showed that the dogs had a clear impact on the children’s stress hormone levels,” says Sonia Lupien, senior researcher and a professor at the Université de Montréal Department of Psychiatry and Director of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress at Louis-H. Lafontaine Hospital, “I have not seen such a dramatic effect before.”
Pet therapy: how animals and humans heal each other. (summary)
by Julie Rovner, March 5, 2012, National Public Radio
“A growing body of scientific research is showing that our pets can make us healthy, or healthier. “That helps explain the increasing use of animals — dogs and cats mostly, but also birds, fish and even horses — in settings ranging from hospitals and nursing homes to schools, jails and mental institutions.”
“In the late 1970s that researchers started to uncover the scientific underpinnings animal therapy. One of the earliest studies, published in 1980, found that heart attack patients who owned pets lived longer than those who didn’t. Another early study found that petting one’s own dog could reduce blood pressure.
“More recently, says Rebecca Johnson, a nurse who heads the Research Center for Human/Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, studies have been focusing on the fact that interacting with animals can increase people’s level of the hormone oxytocin. “That is very beneficial for us,” says Johnson. “Oxytocin helps us feel happy and trusting.” Which, Johnson says, may be one of the ways that humans bond with their animals over time.”