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Written by: Lakshmi Mahadevan, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Extension Specialist – Special Populations, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service

It is well-known that well-behaved pets such as cats, dogs and rabbits provide comfort, reduce stress and help alleviate depression among individuals. The principle benefits of animal therapy however are also particularly applicable to children with special needs and disabilities. For instance, animal therapy aids children with disabilities by:

  • Establishing a safe and social environment in which children can practice verbal interactions with animals.
  • Delivering tactile stimulation through touching, petting, hugging and stroking an animal.
  • Offering physical therapy by brushing, giving a bath, or measuring out food for pets at home.
  • Allowing for access to someone to “trust” and a friend.
  • Supplying an object of responsibility that needs to be cared for thus encouraging well-being skills such as daily hygiene, recognizing signs of distress or illness, taking medicine, providing first aid, being physically safe, understanding of boundaries and asking for help.
  • Providing opportunities for physical exercise such as walking or running with a dog, riding a horse, swimming with friendly dolphins, performing simple farm chores (picking up eggs or raking).
  • Improving intellect by reading to a dog, observing physical anatomy of animals, understanding biological processes such as puberty, pregnancy and death.

Therapy DogParents and guardians can create opportunities for children to experience animal therapy in the form of riding horses, interacting with friend’s dogs, playing with cats, petting animals at a zoo,  visiting an aquarium or having a pet at home. There are three types of animals that can be used for support in different ways:

Service Animals: Service animals, majority of whom are dogs guide individuals who are visually or hearing impaired, help with physical tasks, detect diabetic episodes and are considered “medical equipment” and not pets. Service animals are allowed to accompany their person at all times and are specifically allowed for under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Emotional Support Animals: Emotional support animals can come in different species. They are not strictly trained but provide a great deal of comfort and support to their person. Emotional support animals are usually prescribed by a medical doctor and are thus with documentation often allowed on planes and into other facilities.

Therapy Animals: Typically “visiting” in nature, therapy animals (dogs, cats, rabbits or even miniature horses) are brought to a facility by someone for therapeutic purposes. These animals are trained, registered and insured under a specific program (for e.g. Canine Good Citizen).

Learn more about Animal Therapy for Children with Special Needs