Can Pet Therapy Help People with Developmental Disabilities?

Man with a developmental disability petting a horse

Who doesn’t appreciate a happy-go-lucky retriever? Their smiling and friendly countenance, calm demeanor, love for people and affinity for work make them a popular therapy animal. Dogs and cats are the most common therapy animals, but guinea pigs, horses and other animals are used as well.

According the Americans with Disabilities Act, “Therapy animals provide people with therapeutic contact, usually in a clinical setting, to improve their physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning.”

Animal therapy has proven effective in many ways, but does this mean getting a pet or providing pet therapy will make a difference for your loved one with intellectual or developmental disabilities (I/DD)? Read on as we explore how and where it can help, areas where it has shown documented results and risks related to pet therapy.

What is Pet Therapy?

First, let’s be more specific about definitions and therapeutic purpose. Pet therapy is a generalized term often used to describe the many benefits people gain from interacting with animals, whether as pets or for therapeutic reasons. The therapeutic terms are animal-assisted therapy and animal-assisted activities. What’s the difference?

  • Animal-assisted therapy uses formal, structured sessions with an animal and its handler to work toward specific treatment goals.
  • Animal-assisted activities don’t involve treatment goals. People interact with an animal and its handler for recreation, comfort or joy.

Goals for animal-assisted therapy can range from improving motor skills and independent movement to increasing self-esteem, promoting verbal communications and developing social skills. For the purposes of this discussion, we will focus on therapeutic benefits and continue to use pet therapy to indicate goal-oriented interactions with animals.

Benefits of Pet Therapy in I/DD

Petting animals promotes the release of serotonin and other hormones that elevate mood. That might be all your loved one needs. However, defining a goal helps to focus interactions with a therapy animal on an intended outcome. Following are some additional benefits of working with a therapy animal. 

  • Lowers anxiety and slows breathing
  • Promotes relaxation
  • Provides an escape or happy distraction
  • Decreases exercise stress
  • Reduces physical pain
  • Enhances mobility
  • Improves mood
  • Promotes the use of language in children with autism
  • Encourages social interaction, even in those with autism
  • Lightens depression
  • Increases self confidence
  • Reduces boredom
  • Improves coordination
  • Builds empathy

Risks of Pet Therapy

The primary risks associated with pet therapy are safety and sanitation for your loved one as well as the animal. Dogs are most common in pet therapy so those who are afraid of dogs need to consider cats, another animal or avoid pet therapy. Because pet therapy involves animals, those with allergies need to assess that potential risk before deciding to pursue pet therapy.

The Research Behind Pet Therapy

Is pet therapy real? Are there real benefits or are the results placebo or novelty? What does the science say?

There have been documented instances of individuals suffering with anxiety or agitation, sometimes severe, who quickly became calm and focused when visiting a zoo. Others who lash out in rage at their inability to communicate with peers find the words to connect when in the presence of a therapy dog.

Research in this area has been predominantly focused on children and adolescents. It often lacks rigorous scientific methodology and is conducted with small sample sizes. However, the research finds overwhelmingly positive outcomes and it becomes more rigorous every year.

  • A 2020 meta-analysis of the effects of animal-assisted therapy on social and communications skills required that participating studies used a control group and produced enough data to calculate effect. The analysis found animal-assisted therapy had a large effect on social and communication skills, with the largest results in lessening the effects of autism spectrum disorders. citation, citation
  • A 2016 review of animal-assisted therapy on psychosocial outcomes in people with intellectual disabilities also found positive behavior, cognitive, emotional and social outcomes with some results reaching statistical significance. citation
  • A 2015 review of studies into using pet therapy for those with autism spectrum disorder has found similar positive outcomes and most notably finds high satisfaction rates among participants as well as their families.

How to Find a Pet Therapist

If you think pet therapy might help your loved one, check with their social worker, case worker, counselor or therapist. These individuals can often make referrals to certified pet therapists in your area and may even work with a pet therapist to define goals and plan interactions. In some cases, you may need a prescription or letter from a doctor, therapist or social worker.

Fido the Pet Therapist

Should you get a pet to be a therapy animal for your loved one? It depends. Let’s look at what we’ve learned. Therapy animals and their handlers are certified and trained to effectively manage the animal-human interaction. Can you or someone else in your household be the handler and work toward a therapeutic goal? Do you have a goal and thoughts about how animal interactions can support that goal? It’s a commitment to tackle on your own.

Good News

Many of the benefits of pet therapy can be obtained by having a pet, without a stated therapeutic goal. If you think a pet might help your loved one, remember that petting an animal prompts the release of calming hormones and that we can use animal-assisted activities for recreation, comfort or joy, no goals necessary.

A Note of Caution About Therapy Animals versus Service Animals

We’ve talked about pet therapy here, but service animals are a different animal entirely. Service animals have been trained to provide a specific service to an individual such as guiding someone who is blind, recognizing an impending seizure, or performing tasks for an individual with reduced mobility.

Therapy dogs don’t qualify as service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act and aren’t automatically granted the same access on airplanes or in restaurants, shops or housing, no matter how much they serve your loved one.

Find out more about how great dogs become therapy dogs:

Pet Partners, which promotes the human-animal bond

Alliance of Therapy Dogs, one of the largest therapy dog organizations