Pet Therapy and Autism

Active or passive interactions with animals can be of great psychosocial and physical benefit for all people, but particularly for certain populations with special needs.” American Veterinary Medical Association

There is a deep and beneficial relationship between humans and other animals. The fact that such an interaction promotes the health and emotional well-being of humans is understood and accepted.  It is therefore of interest to note that autistic individuals often develop special relationships to animals that in many cases lead to improvements in socialization and communication.  Furthermore, the younger an autistic person is exposed to a pet, the better the outcome.  It is for this reason that a variety of animals such as dogs, horses and even dolphins have been specifically used as therapeutic agents.  Although most studies in the autism literature stress the positive outcomes of these interactions, we should note that these studies have limitations as they are based on small sample sizes which often lack a control group.

The domestication of animals began some 14,000 years ago. Egyptians honored dogs.  Many mummified remains have been found at their necropolis (cemeteries) dating some 2500 years ago.  It is believed that dogs acted as a bridge to the afterlife, helping the dead find their way much like a guide dog helping a blind man in present times. (Note: Although guide dogs are well recognized in society, the US government has recently recognized/added a legal category for animal assistance: emotional support animals [ESA]) (for reference see:

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, was a dog person.  One of his chow chows, a red fluff ball named Jofi, became his special companion in his later years.  Freud thought that animals appeared in the dreams of children because they facilitated the expression of their subconscious thoughts. Indeed, in his private practice, children were more relaxed whenever his dog was in the office.  Freud used his dog in the clinical setting as a means of estimating the level of tension in the children.

SF dogs

Pets are an important part of our lives. Sixty eight percent of all US households (about 85 million families) have a pet. Almost half of them (48%) are dogs. Animal names (i.e., cat and dog) are among the most common first words used by babies. We use animals to teach language and math skills, e.g., counting the number of dogs.  Pets give and receive attention thus helping fulfill two specific social needs in children: empathy and attachment.  In some autistic individuals, pets facilitate understanding a framework of the world at large. Children who have a dog in the classroom have less aggression and more social integration than those without.  Furthermore, the beneficial effects of pet ownership can last for years.

In children, certain behaviors indicative of animal cruelty serve as a warning for later delinquency, violence and criminal activity. In many occasions, children who are cruel to animals have themselves received or witnessed abuse. “In fact, the link between animal abuse and interpersonal violence is so well-known that many U.S. communities now cross-train social-service and animal-control agencies in how to recognize signs of animal abuse as possible indicators of other abusive behaviors”.  Some warning signs in children include:

Handling animals roughly

Deliberately tries to frighten or injure an animal

Treats animals like objects or toys and is not interested in their needs

Exhibits other aggressive, or impulsive tendencies

Disregards adult intervention regarding the treatment of animals

Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is an intervention that uses animals within a treatment plan. It is a goal-directed intervention aimed at promoting the physical, social, emotional and/or cognitive functions of patients.  Studies show that AAT improves quality of life in hospitalized patients. After interacting with dogs, children show increased pleasure, awareness and engagement. It increases socialization (interactions with other children and the staff), decreases anxiety, better acceptance of treatment, and increases self-esteem. In some cases, pain reduction was 4 times greater when accompanied by animal assisted therapy.

AAT differs from Animal-Assisted Activities (AAA) as the latter is provided by volunteers, not health professionals.  For those interested in obtaining more information the web site «Pet Partners» will prove a valuable resource ( Pet Partners/Delta Society was established in 1977 as a collaborative effort between psychiatrists and veterinarians. In 1996 they published the standards of practice. The document, as it has evolved, is available at

Criteria for using pets in therapy include: age, house-trained (infection risk if they have an accident), vaccinated, diet (can’t eat raw meat- studies suggest they can transmit salmonella), history of aggression, obedience skills, and whether they welcome interactions with strangers.  There are also handler’s criteria in order to participate in AAT: being able to read body language of pets, demonstrating positive interactions and avoid negative behaviors of pets, being sociable and able to guide the pet-child interaction, and serving as an advocate for the safety and well-being of their animal.

Some risks of animal therapy include contagion with infectious diseases (note: the people most at risk are those more likely to be hospitalized) (see references below for CDC website on zoonotic transmission). C. Diff present in 58% of dogs (healthy dogs) and in 71% it is deemed toxigenic.  Also, pet allergies affect 15% of the population. This can be minimized by regular grooming and establishing barriers for shedding. Lastly, there are accidents (defecation/urination) and unexpected bites that should always be considered.


Animal-Assisted Intervention Guidelines by the American Veterinary Medical Association can be found at

The CDC has a web site expanding on those infections that are shared between humand and animals.

YouTube offers several valuable resources that can be accessed by typing, “a day in the life of a therapy dog” in its search option.

There are also many entries on the internet that allow the possibility of individual and corporate sponsoring of pets for therapy.

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