From the editor: Most of the content and scientific findings was extracted from a longer guide at Kidadl.com.Additional resources were used to embellish the article to include a wider audience.
When you get a family pet as a child, you are mainly just excited. It’s a fun new friend to play with. However, there’s so much more to pet ownership than just welcoming a furry friend into your home. Pets, or even just contact with animals, are also very beneficial for children with sensory, physical and neuro diverse disabilities.
Equally, if you decide a pet isn’t right for your family at the moment, that’s fine. Your family can still benefit from spending time with animals. Instead of just trying to explain to a child with a visual impairment or other disability what animals look like through toys or models, give them the opportunity to have a pet or consider the following:
• Spending time with pets your family and friends own
• Going to responsible animal parks, petting zoos, farms, museums with taxidermy animals and or animal horns and try to arrange for the child to touch some of these, ETC.
Boy with visual impairment feeling a live tortoise
• Spend time outside in nature observing wild animals and tell the child what they look like, what they do and eat, etc.
Social, emotional and educational benefits of pets
The changes in childhood (especially the first few years of life) are remarkable. The experiences children have growing up shape their character, as well as the adults they will become. But as many parents experience, pets can play a significant role in positive childhood development.
Provide comfort and reassurance.
Animals are a great source of comfort and emotional support. When children are asked who they would go to with a problem, researchers show that kids regularly mention pets. Kids often see their pets as friends, confiding in them and relying on them for comfort. Dogs are particularly good at this. Their unconditional love can do more than keep a child company.
Interacting with animals has been shown to decrease levels of cortisol (a stress-related hormone), increase the release of dopamine and oxytocin, which are anti-stress or feel-good hormones, and lower blood pressure.
The ‘social’ support given by pets has some advantages compared to the social support given by humans. Pets can make people feel unconditionally accepted, whereas fellow humans may judge and criticize.
Help with learning and improve confidence.
We know pets are non-judgemental. Parents with pets will confirm that you’ll often see kids chatting away to their furry friends, reading them stories or even asking them questions. Animals enjoy the company – they don’t have the expectations or assumptions that humans do. For children, this means they may talk to, or confide in, an animal in ways they would not with people, especially if they’re not confident. They’re not afraid of looking silly or making a mistake in front of the animal, so they’ll try and grow in confidence. This boosted self-esteem can really help with learning over time, as well as simply feeling more comfortable with new challenges.
Encourage nurturing behaviour.
You’ll often hear about pets helping children learn the importance of responsibilities – you can involve your child in taking care of an animal. But what’s so beneficial about this is how much it encourages caring traits at a young age.
“Nurturing isn’t a quality that suddenly appears in adulthood when we need it… People need a way to practice being caregivers when they’re young.” And pets offer just that opportunity.
Improve health and encourage a healthy lifestyle.
There are obvious benefits to having certain pets who require exercise – notably dogs, which will encourage you to exercise more and lead an active lifestyle. But there are benefits beyond that for all types of pets. Having multiple pets decreases a child’s risk of developing certain allergies.
Build deeper family bonds.
This is an unexpected benefit, but pets can help families grow closer. This is great for all members of the family, not just for the children. It’s quite obvious when you think about it; a pet is often the focus of family activities. You’ll go on a walk together, take turns grooming or feeding the pet, or simply all play together. You’ll talk about the pet too – how funny it was when the dog chased his tail, how happy you were when the hamster used her wheel for the first time, etc.
Pet bonding activities and responsible play
To encourage the role that pets can play in childhood development, parents should know what activities they can use to help their children bond with pets. That’s where the idea of responsible play comes in.
Animals are great fun to be around, but we have to teach children (and pets) boundaries to ensure both feel safe and comfortable while bonding. After all, pets can get stressed, tired or anxious, too. That’s why it’s important for parents (and kids) to learn how to recognize signs of stress in their pet and know when not to approach. These could include:
- A tail tucked under may mean a dog is anxious.
- If a dog is panting (without exercise), they may be experiencing stress.
- Showing teeth or growling is a warning sign that a dog needs space.
- Yawning, drooling, and licking can mean a dog is nervous.
- Dogs may pace or find it hard to settle if they are agitated.
- A dog may cower or shrink if it feels threatened.
- Hiding or escape behaviour.
- Crouching and looking tense, especially close to the ground, may mean the cat is frightened.
- Hissing or growling is a warning sign that a cat needs space.
- Cats may demonstrate exaggerated swallowing or licking their nose if scared.
- Repeated pacing when in the home, often accompanied by loud meowing, indicates stress.
- Scratching excessively on the furniture.
- Running away or struggling to get away.
- Small animals with dilated pupils, blinking rapidly and generally having a startled appearance are scared.
- Scared small animals may also jump at every sudden sound or movement and always be on high alert.
- Rabbits may hold their ears back tight against their head or thump the ground when stressed.
- Repetitive behaviours, such as circling or biting the bars of their cage, could mean an animal is stressed.
Pets and neurodiverse children
The presence of a non-judgmental pal with paws in the family home can help all kids, but it can be especially valuable to neurodiverse children. Beyond the benefits we’ve outlined above, there have been additional studies into how different pets can support autistic children and children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to be the best versions of themselves.
- Children who spent time reading to the real dogs had fewer behavioural problems during therapy, and they demonstrated better social skills – such as sharing more, cooperating and volunteering.
- A pet can also create structure and encourage regular habits, something which symptoms of ADHD may make tricky. Animals need to have some consistency in terms of when they are fed, when they are exercised, when they go to bed and so on. Getting kids involved in this routine can help them thrive.
- Depending on their age, you can teach them to stick to the pet’s schedule and gain valuable skills like keeping track of time and managing responsibilities. These can transfer over to everyday life and non-pet related activities, but also make the child feel proud of their involvement in taking care of their pet.
- Autism Support Dogs are for children aged between 5 -12 and who have been diagnosed with Autism by a qualified medical practitioner. The primary role is to help with the tendency of children with autism to run away when they are distracted. The parent/caregiver is the Autism Support Dog’s primary handler. The dog wears a soft harness; a lead is attached to this soft harness and the child holds this lead. There are various added advantages in owning an Autism Support Dog, e.g., companionship for children who are often lonely due to their autism.
- Assisting with speech therapy, general lessons and tactile issues.
- Improved confidence.
- Provides physical pressure needed in times of anxiety.
- Interaction free from demands.
Choosing the right pet for your family
There’s not one answer about how a pet can help somebody with a specific condition.” It depends on what you (and your family) are looking to gain from having a pet, as well as what type of home you can offer an animal.
Is your goal to increase physical activity? Then you might benefit from owning a dog. You have to walk a dog several times a day and you’re going to increase physical activity. If your goal is reducing stress, sometimes watching fish swim can result in a feeling of calmness. So, there’s no one type that fits all.
Advice on getting a family pet.
While there are so many benefits to getting a family pet, having an animal companion comes with a lot of responsibility. All pets require a lot of time and money from the family they join. Most owners will tell you how much their beloved pets are worth it, but it’s not a decision you should take lightly. By doing your research into what pet may be the right fit for your family, you’ll be more likely to welcome an animal that’s going to bring you and your children joy. Try pet-sitting or spending time at a pet store; this may give you a stronger sense of the best type of pet for you.
All pets should only be bought from a reputable source. Ensure that your pet choice complies with the legislation in your state, province and/or country. You must never take animals from the wild or disturb their habitat.
When thinking about getting a pet, think about the following:
- Do you have the time for giving it sufficient attention and exercise?
- Will it fit into your lifestyle?
- Will it need training and are you prepared for possible behaviour issues?
- Can you cover the expenses e.g., food, vaccinations, vet visits, bed/cage, toys, treats, grooming?
- Do you have sufficient space for the pet to have its own safe place and to exercise?
- Are you prepared to clean up the yard or cage, and in case of accidents in the house?
- If you or your child has a visual impairment and you are concerned that you may accidentally step on your pet, don’t be worried. Animals are very smart and can easily sense your presence; they will learn to quickly move out of your way, or they’ll learn to announce their presence (for example: through a bark or a meow.)
- If you have low vision, you may want to consider a bright florescent collar (or even a glow-in-the-dark collar) to make your pet more easily observable.
- If you’re blind, you may want to consider a collar with bells, so you can hear your pet and be alerted when they are near.