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Should We Get a Pet?

Pets offer a unique type of unconditional love and companionship that children with special needs can benefit from.

Maybe you have been on the fence about bringing a fur baby into your home. How do you know if it’s the right fit? Or the right time? Maybe you are wondering if your child qualifies for a service dog?

Bringing one into your home is a big commitment, and there are many things to think about before taking the plunge into pet ownership. To help, we have asked Dr. Emily Roth, a pediatric psychologist with Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis, to share her thoughts on the benefits of pet ownership and what families should consider before bringing home their very own.  

What are some of the benefits of pet ownership for kids with autism?

There are many benefits to owning a pet. Specific to children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), pets provide social companionship, increased opportunities for responsibility, communication and physical exercise.  

What should parents consider when choosing a pet? 

Families need to make an educated choice when choosing a pet. When you bring one into your home, you want to make sure it is well trained, healthy, non-reactive and good with children. It is important for families to also consider the pet’s needs, such as exercise, training requirements and ownership costs.  

What about service dogs?

There is limited evidence supporting service animals for children with ASD. Most research on children with ASD and pets assesses the benefits of owning a pet, rather than the benefits of having a service animal. Some organizations do train dogs to help alert parents of safety concerns related to their child with ASD, such as leaving their bedroom at night or self-injurious behavior. Families should make this important decision in collaboration with their healthcare provider, given the limited research supporting these animals and their expense.

Pets bring a tremendous amount of joy to families, and this can be especially true for children on the autism spectrum. If it’s something you’re considering, talk to your child about the responsibilities and changes they can expect once the pet is adopted into your family, such as where the pet will eat or sleep, and what kind of behaviors they may expect from the newest member of your family.

You may also want to take a few trips to the animal shelter, or the breeder, and allow your child to acclimate to the pet before bringing it home.

Also consider purchasing the supplies that will be needed a couple weeks before the animal is expected to arrive — such as food dishes, a kennel, a sleep mat, litter box, etc. — and place them around the house. If the changes happen gradually, this may help with the overall transition.

It may take time, but hopefully you will soon discover a blossoming friendship between your child and pet!

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