The happiness that a pet can bring to a home is immeasurable. For a family with a child with special needs, a beloved furry friend can offer an even wider variety of benefits.
“Gifting a kid with special needs a pet is one of the best things you can possibly do, says Sara Ochoa, D.V.M., veterinary writer at WeLoveDoodles.com. “Animals inherently possess an unbiased view of all living beings and can be incredibly empathetic, which is exactly why they make the perfect companions for children with special needs.”
How does having a pet help kids with autism, physical disabilities, anxiety, and other disabilities and diagnoses?
In fact, Dr. Ochoa says that any pet can offer therapeutic benefits to kids with special needs. Here are some ways bringing a pet into your home can improve your child’s life and health.
1. Pets provide companionship for kids who struggle socially.
Pets offer a bond for kids who could be struggling to make connections with their peers, which can leave them feeling lonely and isolated, says Sherry Morgan of Petsolino. “Dogs and even cats are innocent creatures that can be a very good support system. They are non-judgmental, good listeners, stress-relievers, and can give you nice and warm cuddles!”
2. Pets help reduce stress and anxiety.
There’s no denying we are living in a stressful time, and kids with special needs can often feel that anxiety on another level. “The calm demeanor and loving presence of dogs can cause a perceived reduction in stress and cortisol levels in children,” says Danielle Mühlenberg, a dog behaviorist.
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3. Dogs help kids with special needs stay physically active.
Getting active can be a stress reliever, as well as a mood booster. Pets encourage children to en-gage in physical activity and spend time outdoors, which is beneficial for healthy lifestyle habits, notes Rachel Barrack, D.V.M., of Animal Acupuncture in NYC.
4. Pets can help kids with autism build social skills.
Research has shown that animals increase social behaviors in children on the spectrum. “Children with autism were more likely to talk, smile, laugh, and make physical contact with others when they had real pets, rather than toys,” reveals Joanna Woodnutt, B.V.M, B.V.S., BVMedSci, MRCVS, and a team member at Breed Advisor.
5. Taking care of an animal helps kids learn responsibility.
Taking care of their pets will help a child with special needs create their own schedule, including when to feed or bathe the pet, and even when it’s time for some fun. Morgan points out that this daily routine helps create better habits, such as the ability to make plans, then focus and stick to it.
6. Pets can help kids with physical disabilities with everyday tasks.
Animals can be trained to grab objects, open doors, and guide people with limited mobility or physical impairments, Dr. Barrack notes.
7. Support dogs can help with a child with special needs' well-being.
A fully trained support dog can be taught behaviors such as applying pressure to help with a panic attack or sounding the alarm if self-harming behaviors are happening. Dr. Woodnutt notes that there are even charities that train dogs for a child's particular needs.