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Which Pets Are Best for Children with Autism?

April 9, 2024

Pets are a wonderful addition to any home. They provide us with hours of enjoyment, comfort, and love. For families who have an autistic child, there are even more benefits to be had from the addition of a furry friend to the family. But what are the best pets for autistic children?

While there’s no one right answer to that question, it’s certainly true that some pets provide kids on the spectrum with additional benefits. Let’s take a closer look at some of the best types of animals to introduce to the home.

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Top 10 Ways a Therapy Dog Can Help Your Child with Autism

Dogs 

Dogs are referred to as “man’s best friend” for a reason. They’re loyal, unconditionally loving, protective, smart, and comforting, all rolled into one fluffy bundle of joy. 

A recent report from Kidadl found that 94% of families who had a dog said their child had bonded strongly with it. What’s more, a further 70% of those who didn’t own one said their children greatly enjoyed interacting with dogs when they met them in social situations. 

Dogs are particularly good for kids with autism, as they’ll often provide the perfect balance of comfort and attention to keep them feeling happy. They’re also more directly trainable than most pets, meaning they can be taught therapy techniques such as: 

  • Licking the child to bring them comfort 
  • Applying calming weighted pressure
  • Using their paws to stop a child from striking themselves during a fit 

While any dog breed will show you love and adoration, you might want to turn to a Labrador, Retriever, or German Shepherd if you’re considering the therapy option. 

Turtle 

The recent Netflix hit Atypical brought the use of turtles as therapy animals into the mainstream spotlight. While you could be forgiven for thinking Edinson was a quirky choice for the main character Sam, in reality, these reptiles are great options for kids who are less keen on physical contact.

Relatively low maintenance (once their habitat has been created), turtles provide kids with the chance to learn how to nurture and care for another creature. Tanks need to be cleaned on a weekly basis, while turtles themselves are creatures of habit and routine.

Any parents of kids on the spectrum will appreciate the symmetry here – which is another reason why these adorable companions are the perfect match for certain children. 

When it comes to the exact species, there are a lot of options to choose from. The best advice is to opt for a smaller species, where there are considerably lower levels of overall maintenance required. 


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Rabbit 

Rabbits aren’t as low maintenance as you might think in terms of care needs. A decent amount of work needs to go into ensuring they remain healthy, enriched, and happy. This makes them a better option for older kids who’ve had experience with another pet in the past. 

That shouldn’t put you off, though. Rabbits are very intelligent and appreciate being stroked behind the ears and on the top of their head. As prey animals, they aren’t super keen on being picked up, so they make a good option for kids who like the idea of interacting with their pets at arm’s length. 

Their litter needs to be changed regularly, and it’s best for them to live indoors. Greens such as lettuce, carrot stems, and even natural flowers are part of their diet – but hay is most important to keep their gut in good condition. They should be given a constant supply of this. 

Also, remember – they require an “exotic vet,” which means you’ll need to make sure you have one nearby to you. 

Choosing the best pet for an autistic child

The FCA highlights some of the biggest advantages of bringing a pet into the home of someone on the spectrum, which are:

  • Reducing overall levels of stress and anxiety 
  • Helping to improve social skills 
  • Helping to improve communication and language skills 
  • Acting as a therapy companion during emotional breakdowns 
  • Giving an autistic child an additional sense of purpose and pride 

With so many wonderful benefits, it’s perhaps little surprise families turn to pets to help nurture the development of their child. So, which pet will you choose to bring to the family? 

No matter which one you pick, make sure to do your research beforehand to ensure you, your child, and your new pet are all happy and healthy together. 

FAQs

Q: Should autistic kids have pets?

A: Whether autistic children should have pets depends on individual circumstances and considerations, such as the child’s preferences, abilities, and the family’s capacity to care for the pet. While pets can offer companionship, emotional support, and opportunities for learning, it’s essential to carefully assess whether the child’s needs and the pet’s welfare can be adequately met.

Q: Do animals help autistic children calm down?

A: Yes, animals can often help autistic children calm down by providing companionship and a soothing presence. Interacting with animals has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety while promoting relaxation and emotional well-being in children on the autism spectrum.

Q: What’s the best dog breed for autistic children?

A: The best dog breed for a child with autism depends on the child’s individual needs and preferences. Generally, breeds known for their gentle temperament, patience, and ability to bond closely with their owners, such as golden retrievers, Labradors, or poodles, may be good choices.

Q: Is a cat or dog better for autistic children?

A: There isn’t a definitive answer as to whether a cat or dog is better for autistic children, as it depends on the individual child’s preferences and needs. Some may find comfort and companionship with a gentle dog, while others may thrive with the independent yet soothing presence of a cat.

References:

Atherton, G., Edisbury, E., Piovesan, A. et al. ‘They ask no questions and pass no criticism’: A mixed-methods study exploring pet ownership in autism. J Autism Dev Disord 53, 3280–3294 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-022-05622-y 

Carlisle, G.K., Johnson, R.A., Wang, Z. et al. Exploring Human–Companion Animal Interaction in Families of Children with Autism. J Autism Dev Disord 50, 2793–2805 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-020-04390-x 

Differences in Parental Perception of Social Competence between Children with Autism with and without Pets https://www.proquest.com/openview/ba8db78fcf00807df11b35405283db8c/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y 

Laurel Lenz, Jenna Hansen, Jaclyn Schumacher, Hanna Lee, Bill Wong, Barbara Kornblau; The Role of Pets in the Lives of Autistic Adults. Am J Occup Ther July 2022, Vol. 76(Supplement_1), 7610510197p1. doi: https://doi.org/10.5014/ajot.2022.76S1-PO197

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