February 20 is National Love Your Pet Day! Pets can be an amazing thing for children with autism, sensory disorders or any number of other special needs. Animal therapy has increased in recent years to treat a multitude of health conditions, such as cancer, epilepsy, heart disease, emotional and behavioral disorders and chronic pain. It seems only logical that someone would study the effects of animal therapy on children with autism.
In 2014, the University of Missouri, College of Veterinary Medicine did just that. MU’s Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction found that autistic kids who have a family pet at home have more advanced social skills and are more assertive and communicative than autistic kids without pets.
Dr. Gretchen Carlisle, the lead author, and her team, studied 70 families who have children that are patients at the MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. While most of the families had dogs, several had a variety of other animals including fish, farm animals, rabbits, reptiles, birds and even a spider.
Dr. Carlisle’s data showed that children who live in homes that include pets were more likely to introduce themselves, ask questions and respond to other people’s questions – all things that can be difficult for children with autism. The researchers felt that the pets helped to provide an opportunity for the children to interact with others without realizing they were doing it.
But, Dr. Carlisle cautions that finding the right animal is key and is also different for each autistic child. Dogs typically are the most common pets, especially for children, due to their energy, affection and playfulness. But, for a child with a sensitivity to noise, a barking dog may not be the best option. Cats can be great for a child like this – or rabbits, gerbils, etc. It’s important to match your child’s needs and personality to a pet that he or she can really bond with. There are a number of animals that can make really great pets: guinea pigs, iguanas, farm animals (as long as you live in the proper environment for them.) Remember, someone in this study actually had a spider!
There are several other studies that conclude that owning a pet can really be beneficial to most people. Bonding with a pet has been shown to encourage empathy towards other humans. Pets have been shown to help reduce stress and anxiety, blood pressure and heart rate and can even help children and adults to gain independence that they wouldn’t otherwise have.
There are so many reasons to love your pets and the benefits that they have for autistic kids are just a few of those reasons. Give your furry friends some extra love this Tuesday . . . or maybe some of their favorite treats!
The information for this blog post came from the following articles. Read more at the links below:
** Photos are from bhmpics.com; copperpointresort.com; dailymail.co.uk and foodexposed.co.za