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Which Animals Are Best for Kids with Autism?

By January 24, 2007

A reader writes:
I was just wondering what animal for be good for ASD? and where I can get an animal for a 3 year child with ASD with sensory disorder?
Therapy dogs are often great companions for kids with autism, and there are organizations that train and place such dogs. One such foundation is North Star Dogs, which offers a long article on the topic on their website. Of course cats, rabbits, and even horses can be wonderful companions -- and horseback riding therapy (called hippotherapy) can help kids with sensory issues while also building communication skills.

Does your child with autism have an animal companion? What are the pros and cons? Can you recommend a good source for therapeutic pets or animal therapy?

January 24, 2007 at 2:32 pm
(1) Sandy says:

We have two cats and later got a small dog. All kids will react differently to different pets. my son hardly acknowledged we had cats when he was 4 and took 3 months for him to notice one cat was gone. Kids who have particular fears of people may also have those same fears of pets. Pets are unpredictable in behavior and some kids with ASD need to dominate their surroundings and have every thing predictable. There really is no pet for a child with autism, it’s more like what the child would accept and do well with a type of pet.
My son never liked large dogs, or their fur. My sister has Golden Retrievers and for my son, the fur affect his sensory issues and the dogs size seemed to intimidate my son. My aunt one day wouldn’t take no for an answer, and sent us home with the last puppy of the litter. Best breed and puppy for my son. The dog weighs no more than 10 pounds, very active and not much fur. This dog was only trained by me, and she is very protective of my son. The best thing about the small active dog, is her over reaction to my son coming home from school. The dog makes her ‘feeling’ very obvious!
I would experience different pets through relatives and pet stores, to find a pet that’s right for your child. Like any parent, you’re going to be the main caregiver to any pet, so you’ll want a pet you like too. I myself could never deal with a rodent type pet!

below is a link to locate by state Horse Riding for the Disabled:
Click here: North American Riding for the Handicapped Association – NARHA.org
or http://www.narha.org/Centers/FindCenter2.asp

January 25, 2007 at 10:07 pm
(2) Cynthia Whitfield says:

Often people are advised to wait until their children are five to get a new pet. One of the reasons is mentioned by Sandy – animals can be unpredictable — and so can young children. Once I was considering a lab puppy for my son (who was 8 at the time), and a breeder was very apprehensive about dogs and kids with autism because of some trouble she’d heard of several times — dogs getting freaked out about sometimes about the kid and growling and trying to bite, etc. I was surprised to hear this because you always hear about how good kids with autism are with animals! Not always it turns out!

Later, I observed both kinds of situations — kids and animals that did well together, and those who were downright dangerous together. It really varies.

The North Star goes through the trouble of really making sure there is a good fit and dealing with training, etc. I would love to get one puppy for Jalen, who is now 13 and loves animals, but my husband is dead set against a dog. Jalen does do well with some of the neighbors’ dogs, however. He’s allowed to pet and hug the dogs who have the right temperament.

We do have cats that Jalen loves and a parakeet he also loves. He helps care for them, but mostly he loves petting them! He also visits the animal shelter and pet stores regularly and looks at animal books, etc.

January 26, 2007 at 11:18 am
(3) Catherine A. McClarey says:

We’ve almost always had a dog in the house (except for a year between one dog’s death and adopting the next dog), and there were often other people’s pet dogs brought to my autistic son’s special ed classroom when he was younger (I don’t think that’s been done yet this year in high school). My son did NOT like being forced to interact with dogs, or having dogs force themselves upon him (by coming up to him, jumping on him, licking him, etc.). We’ve worked on increasing his comfort level around dogs by encouraging him to pet the family dog at the end of evening devotions, and he’s learned that giving the dog a table scrap or opening the door so she can “do her business” outside will get her out of his way (temporarily). As he’s gotten more verbal, he’s tried telling the dog “Baby, come” when he wants her to go away — but he doesn’t quite have the right “command voice” yet that she’ll listen to. Other than that, if our son’s around someone else (man or beast) long enough, he gets more used to that individual.
(A horse isn’t exactly a pet for most people, but my son loved taking turns riding on a “therapy horse” with his classmates. Perhaps it was quieter than most dogs and sitting on top of it helped him feel more in control of the situation — go figure! A 3-year-old such as the reader’s child might possibly derive similar enjoyment from a pony ride (at zoos, apple orchards, etc.); try a slow time without many other riders for the first time, and be there to monitor the situation in case it’s too overwhelming for the child even so.)

January 26, 2007 at 1:24 pm
(4) Odin says:

My 11 year old autistic son has two young Boas as unlikely as it sounds! But he interacts great with them and is very gentle. The snakes are even affectionate and he scratches their chins which they enjoy. He is even concerned when they need to keep warm and will make sure that they are comfortable, which shows that he has a responsble nature. I did try a dog at first, but he was nervous because of the size. But when the animal is smaller than he, he’s more confident. Having a young animal(s) means that they can grow as the child does so that the relationship with them develops more.

January 27, 2007 at 4:12 am
(5) Norway Mom says:

My 8 year old autistic son loves all animals in the abstract and cares about their welfare (he couldn’t even sit through the movie “Over the Hedge” since the animals were in danger and their habitat replaced by a subdivision of McMansions).

But he doesn’t really love being around animals because of allergies and sensory issues. Dogs slobber, and the two times he has tried riding ponies (as a pre-schooler), he went completely limp. The height and motion was probably too much for his delicate senses.

We have an aquarium, but the novelty wore off very quickly for him.

I agree it’s best to see how it goes visiting various pets, before committing to having one in your home.

January 27, 2007 at 7:38 am
(6) teresa says:

I have a 3 yr daughter she is autistic she loves dogs . i bought her a big dog now we are going to train him.he is very gentil.so now we have oure work cut out i have faith we will get it done.he is a bloodhound very gental.very lovable.

January 27, 2007 at 4:11 pm
(7) Dena says:

My son is 4 and likes to look at our lizards and we also have sugar gliders he likes to poke at but they move very quickly. Once one of them jumped on him and he has been afraid of them ever since. He also tries to avoid the Rotweiller mostly because she is taller than him and 1 lick she gets his whole face and he hates it. He really enjoys the fish tanks but it is hard to keep him from getting in them. we actually had to get rid of an outdoor tank and the pond.

January 28, 2007 at 9:19 am
(8) jen says:

My 11 yo AS son would love a dog or cat. However, living in an apartment restricts us greatly. So I found that a Guinea Pig would be a great substitute. It worked for the first year but now he hardly pets the pig. My son will sometimes not respond to the pig’s squells. I have to remind him what the noises mean and what the pig needs. I beleive a dog would be more demanding and louder gaining a child’s attention but it is obvious my son still has not grasped the concept just yet. I end up prompting him still. Visiting the pet shop and family members with pets seem to work the best.

October 1, 2007 at 3:35 pm
(9) MIchelle says:

I am considering becoming a trainer of dogs to be used with autistic children as their therapy/service dog. I am concerned that impulsive behavior or a child may hurt the dog. Do you have information and the animals welfare ??

October 27, 2007 at 6:45 am
(10) Ashraf says:

Our daughter ( 4years) has been diagnosed a having a slight touch of Autism . when she was 3 Years old , she used to enjoy animals – both as real animals ( a big cat at her auntie’s house ) and also in picture books .she has been on speeach & occupantional therapy , sa well as GFCF diet .
the change happened when during one of her speech therapy sessions, the therapist played sounds of various animals , and suddenly our daughter screamed loudly hearing a cow’s sound. her reaction was very terrfied and she went outside running in the street. we brought her back into the therapy room but of no use – just more creaming and shouting.
Ever since that day ( 6 months ago ) our daughter has developed an unusual fear of most animals .Apart from a small tortose and 3 chicks that we have at home ,she always gets terrified seeing other anmials specially monkeys & cows , even she avoid looking at animals pictures in books , and also aviod animals on TV.
we tried to encourage her by engaging in activities taht invlove animals , such as animals stor , coloring , drawing , but with no success.

Today only her mother showed a soft toy to her younger brother (2 years ) , and our dughter got extremely nervous , shouting loud and screaming , and even scratching her elder sister and pulling away her baby brither from his neck.

still – after all that – she is capable of recognizing different animals sounds since the age of 3 years.

Is there anything that we can do to help her overcome her anima phopia ?

February 5, 2008 at 3:32 pm
(11) KSMom says:

My daughter is 4 years old, and was just diagnosed as having Asperger’s syndrome, which is a variation of Autism. We have had animals around her since she was a baby. She really seems to enjoy being around cats or smaller dogs, but cannot handle big dogs. They scare her terribly. She also does not like dogs jumping on her. The sensation of their nails(even if trimmed neatly)on her legs upsets her, and will often put her in hysterics. However, if the dog is calm and small, and she can pet it without fear of it jumping or getting in her face, she is quite content. It actually seems that having a dog around has been therapeutic. My advice is this: if there are sensory problems with fur, try a scaly friend…another parent listed that his son loves his two boas. If the child genuinely does not like animals, having a pet could be detrimental. But, since kids with ASD ARE so sensory, some children may benefit from the stimulus that petting an animal provides. My daughter’s dog has been a great help when it comes to socialization, too. She has learned how to be gentle,and plays very well with the dog. This was by no means automatic. It took a lot of verbal redirection and physical prompting to teach her how to interact with the dog properly. She has begun using some of this(imagine that!!! LOL)in her interactions with other children. You, as a child with ASD’S parent, are the best judge of what will do well for your child, and what just will not work.

August 15, 2008 at 7:28 pm
(12) JenandReis says:

We wanted to try a small dog for our son (5 at the time). We found a Jack Russel Rat Terrier. Though the puppy was a trick to potty train, my son took to her right away. He whispers in her ear and talks to her. Personally, I think the best thing about it is that my son often wonders what she is thinking? For a Children with Autism, that wonderment is a miracle. I would recommend this small breed.

September 10, 2008 at 10:55 pm
(13) Resa Sandora says:

I am a licensed clinical social worker and use animal assisted therapy, including miniature horses. I also use the minis for therapeutic pony visits- there is no riding and meet and greet and grooming types of activities. We are a part of a program called Personal Ponies, they have a website. We do the visits for free and are located thru out the US. What I’ve seen though is that some kids connect with some animals, you just never know until you try. The minis do offer the added advantage of small size, but great personalities.

May 31, 2009 at 2:09 am
(14) Katie Ford says:

My is four years old.WE have had her in school since she was one. she has come so far and is doing so well. I am thinking about buying her a pet monkey. and i am wondering if that would be a good animal for her to have? please share your input. thank you -katie-

November 2, 2009 at 6:40 pm
(15) Accidental Expert says:

My son has Asperger’s Syndrome and has an autism service dog. He’s a year old yellow lab.

This dog helps our son in so many ways, although they can be subtle. Mainly he helps our son with his overwhelming anxiety and can help him calm down when he is melting down.

We got him from an organization in Denver called Klassi Kritters and were very pleased. at http://www.klassikritters.com

November 25, 2009 at 6:18 am
(16) Sarah Rixon says:

Hi guys,

I was reading through your posts with interest. I have a child with autism spectrum disorders and have also tried various animals with him. We had a hamster that he wasn’t very interested in because she moved fast and because he couldn’t have her out of her cage without supervision. We have an older cat who he hasn’t taken much interest in either until we got a small dog, now he loves goading the dog into chasing the cat which we’re constantly running around trying to stop! He also mimics the dog with his jumping and barking behaviours, and loves playing with him (albeit a little rough at times – again supervised), and loves feeding him bits of food which i think is reflective of the eating programme he is on (as he’d rather anyone else eat something solid than him!). We originally got the dog thinking he might calm our son down but our son ended up corrupting the dog (now 2 very hyper people in the house!)! It has helped him with other dogs (smaller ones) as he suddenly developed a fear of all dogs for no apparent reason a few years ago.
For my year 2 Uni project I wanted to look at whether household pets had a beneficial effect on symptoms of children with a form of autism, and was interested in looking at how the children mainly interacted with the animals; physically, sensory, vocally etc etc. If anyone on here has a few mins to fill out a questionnaire on this it would help me greatly, i am very interested after reading through your posts at all the massive variations in how your kids have reacted to animals, and some similarities (size of animal, temperament, coat etc….)
If you can help me with my study and are willing to fill in a questionnaire please e-mail me at;
saeharr@btinternet.com and i’ll e-mail one over. It would help me out enormously if any of you could do this, and i would be extremely grateful.
Best Wishes,
Sarah Harris

June 12, 2010 at 11:52 pm
(17) H. Driedger says:

HI. I have a degree in psych. and have been working with autistic children for years. Years ago I became an ABA therapist and really enjoyed that. Since that time, I have adopted some challenging children, whom I love dearly, but have always kept wondering about the time I spent prior to having my own children. I began raising dogs, and have started raising Australian Labradoodles and I have to say they are AMAZING with children and families with special needs kids!!!! They were bred for helping and companionship , seizure alert dogs, guide dogs, assistance dogs to the mentally and physically challenged and agility dogs. I can truly say that they are the best dogs for my children! I recently came across a mom with an autistic child. She said she had been looking for a suitable dog for her family for months. She fell in love with my Australian Labradoodle and they are now waiting for the little doodle to be big enough to move to their new home. If you have any questions about my labradoodles and children, I would love to speak to you about it!


September 29, 2010 at 5:50 pm
(18) Gemma Ashford says:

We run a rescue centre abroad and of course always talk to people with dogs when we meet them. On this occasion we were talking to the dog first as it sat next to me on the train form Victoria London UK – its owner sat on the other side of the seat. When we did speak to the young Goth of twenty odd, it turned out he was autistic and only got out and spoke to others because of the security he felt through being accompanied by his best friend – the dog.

March 16, 2011 at 3:02 pm
(19) daisy mejia says:

my little cousin has autism, its severe and hes 10 years old. he practically has a zoo at his house! lol he has a dog, 3 birds, 3 ducklings, a rabbit, a turtle and about 15 fish and loves them all! you must be careful for two reasons. children will not always react the same and it really all depends on the child. christian isnt aware of how strong he is and has left pets from the past dead :( his intentions were not to kill them but he just doesnt know how strong he is. RIP- 2 previous bunnies

April 7, 2011 at 3:14 am
(20) J says:

I myself am a young adult with autism/aspergers. I personally know what it is like to be a child/ adult with this.
I find cat’s have been my best animal which I love dearly, they are quiet and do not make a loud peircing deafening noise from barking from any size dog. Cat vocals are always quiet enough that it does not hurt my ears and i find that alot of their vocals sound like words which excites me and makes me want to have conversations with them to get them to continue to talk. I find a dogs tongue to be spongey and slimey, which repulses me beyond belief. A cat will rarely lick you, depending on the cat you may get one that licks your hands or feet once in a while, but this just tickles it does not feel gross or leave drool/slim on you. I find dogs to be very intimedating being to forward and in my face. A cat will play with you only when you want to play and will not harrass you. A cat most of the time is happy to sleep and not have to be constantly around you. Being a cat ,by rights, it should be inside 24/7 full time indoor pet so therefore it does you better by being able to have the full time contact with the cat. A cat does not need to be out side and doesnt have to be monitored for toilet breaks outside as it will have a litter tray it can access inside. Any pet that anyone decides to get (a person with or without special needs) has to do the right thing by the pet and give it the proper needed care, do not get a pet for the novelty or the impulse of it. You are also better to get a purebred animal that way you have some idea as to what its temperment is ideally ment to be and also in the long run will save you money, as most reasonable breeders have had their cats tested for any genetic issues, so this will save you money in vet bills.

July 18, 2011 at 6:02 pm
(21) ann marie says:

I have a twelve year old son with austism and he suffers alot with anxiety and would love to help him with this stress and all he asks for is a friend ie: a golden retreiver.. which he seems to connect too.. as his grandmothers neightbour has one. and this is the only reason we think! excites him in visiting her!! Is this the right animal any sujestions??

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