The Effects of Animal Assisted Therapy on Children with Physical and Emotional Disorders Essay

The Effects of Animal Assisted Therapy on

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Children with Physical and Emotional Disorders


         Animal assisted therapy has been used to treat a variety of physical and psychological disorders in children with special needs. Animal assisted therapy is defined as the use of animals such as, cats, dogs, and birds to treat children who have not had success with traditional therapy methods. This therapy is often used with children who have been severely traumatized by severe abuse and neglect. Another area in which animal assisted therapy is commonly used is in the treatment of children with physical and mental disabilities. These difficulties range from conduct disorder, quadriplegia and blindness to autism and learning disabilities such as dyslexia. This therapy allows children who have physical and mental disabilities to improve social skills in a safe and secure environment.

         The use of animal assisted therapy is a crucial tool for a therapist to help children who have psychological problems, or physical and mental disabilities. Animal assisted therapy has been useful in the treatment of children with difficulty verbalizing, such as those who are deaf, or who experience low- functioning autism. It is also effective in therapy for children with conduct disorder caused by emotional trauma. Animal assisted therapy has allowed therapist to help children who otherwise may not have the opportunity to deal with their problems in a therapeutic situation.

Literature Review

         One of the main uses for animal-assisted therapy has been in the treatment of children with autism. According to McNicolas and Collis (1995), animal assisted therapies have been used to treat non-verbal children with autism. Autistic children frequently exhibit difficulty in forming social attachments with family and peers however; evidence has shown that autistic children can form meaningful relationships with animals. McNicolas and Collis (1995) state that it is difficult to obtain quantitative data regarding the success of animal assisted therapy. However, it is possible to obtain some qualitative data with observation techniques, and parental interviews.

         According to McNicolas and Collis (1995), parental interviews are the most effective research tool because parents of autistic children know what is seen as normal behavior for their child. McNicolas and Collis (1995) performed in-depth interviews and the Childhood Autism Rating Scale in order to determine what level of autism was demonstrated by the participants in their stud. The participants ranged from severely to moderately autistic and many participants had exhibited aggressive behaviors in social situations involving family members and peers.

         McNicolas and Collis (1995) interviewed the mothers of the participants in order to assess how children responded to an introductory therapy session with animals being used in an animal assisted therapy session. When interviewed the parents of the participants indicated that the children had demonstrated several behavior changes in their interactions with the therapy animals, and with the people that were present in the room as well. The behaviors that McNicolas and Collis (1995) were looking for included greeting seeking of closeness or proximity seeking and giving of comfort, conflicts, companionship and play.

         The results of the interviews demonstrated that participants in the study exhibited behaviors significantly different from the behaviors that parents had indicated as being normal. Accordng to McNicolas and Collis (1995) the participants sought the therapy animals out as companions because they allowed the child to exhibit behaviors such as touching and hugging that they rarely show to family members or peers. The participants showed greater sensitivity for the needs of the therapy animals. They demonstrated neither anger, nor aggression towards the therapy animals. Finally, the participants initiated physical contact with the therapy animals a behavior that autistic children rarely demonstrate towards people.

         The implication of this research is that autistic children have the capability to express emotions in the same way that non-autistic children do. However, they are rarely comfortable enough to demonstrate affection with other people and are only able to demonstrate their feelings around animals. Animal assisted therapy allows them to become de-sensitized to physical contact and the demonstration of emotion and affection so that they can begin to interact normally with their fellow human beings.

         Another way in which animal assisted therapy is used is in the treatment of physically disabled children. According to Duncan (1995), the primary way in which animal assisted therapy is used with physically disabled children is to help children in dealing with loneliness. Duncan (1995) states that physically disabled children often experience loneliness because their disability restricts them from interacting and forming relationships with their peers. This leads physically disabled children to feel socially isolated. Social isolation in physically disabled children can greatly affect their feelings and emotions.

         Animal assisted therapy appears to be particularly effective in children suffering from conduct disorder, which is defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – 4th ed. as “a repetitive and persistent pattern of behavior in which the basic rights of others or major age-appropriate societal norms or rules are violated” (DSM-IV; American Psychiatric Association [APA], 1994, p.85). In a case study documented by Fawcett and Gullone, a 10-year-old boy with conduct disorder due to maternal abuse and neglect was enrolled in a new intervention strategy program which included a weekly 5-hour visit to the local zoo where the children learned how to care for, and hold, the animals. After a period when Quentin continued his disruptive behavior patterns, he eventually learned to master the skills of caring for the animals through the rewards of comfort and praise. In the first year, Quentin was the stop student in learning mastery of the skills required to work with animals. By his second year in the program, his behavior had drastically improved. Quentin remained formally enrolled in the program for two years but continued to work with animals into his high school years.

         Therapy animals have also been shown to be useful in the treatment of abused and neglected children. According to the Crossroads Group (1998), children who have been abused and neglected often develop problems with depression. They also blame themselves for the abuse, which leads to feelings of social isolation. Finally, animal assisted therapy is useful for abused and neglected children because abused and neglected children are frequently incapable of forming healthy relationships with family, and peers. Therapy animals play a role in teaching abused and neglected children to care for another living being, and be cared for by another living being. Animal assisted therapy helps abused and neglected children learn to define normal and appropriate affection, and appropriate social limits and boundaries. These behaviors are not taught in abusive or neglectful homes therefore, abused and neglected children often demonstrate a very -skewed perception of normalcy.

         Animal assisted therapy has also been used to treat children who have been sexually abused. According to Barker et al (1995), animals can provide support to children who are at high risk for psychological problems due to sexual abuse. Barker et al (1995) states that this is because therapy animals are perceived as being less threatening then people. Animal assisted therapy has been demonstrated to help sexually abused children heal from the trauma created by the abuse because the animals help the child to lessen the pain created by the abuse.

         Although some experts have stated that therapy animals have the ability to empathize with physically or psychologically disabled children Blackman (2003) states that there is no empirical evidence to support this theory.


         Animal assisted therapy has been demonstrated to be effective in the treatment of children with physical disabilities, psychological disabilities, and children with conduct disorder as the result of abuse or neglect. In many cases traditional methods of psychotherapy was ineffective with these children either because an unwillingness to trust an adult, or due to the fact that the problem was too deep seated for traditional therapy to be adequate. Children often find interacting with animals to be easier than interacting with people. The reason behind this is that animals have no expectations other than to be fed and cared for and in return will show a great deal of unconditional affection. Children often express things to their pets that they would never express to friends, family, or teachers.

The case study of Quentin by Fawcett and Gullone profiled earlier in this paper was extremely useful in pointing out the long-range effects of animal-assisted therapy. The case study was effective in outlining how working with animals can turn around the life of a troubled child through concern for others (in this case animals) and how its effects can be witnessed long-term. This case study was important and crucial to the research that went into this paper.

No contraindications regarding the benefits of using animals in therapy for children has been discovered; indeed there seem to be no adverse effects from this approach that have been documented other than possible allergic reaction or harm to the animals themselves, which is carefully monitored (Natural Standard Monograph, 2006). The research by McNicolas and Collis, while interesting and valid, was the least useful due to its age. There are more modern methods of researching the effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy that are more concise; however, it would be interesting to see what lasting effects have occurred in the subjects used today.

         Questions still remain about the long-term effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy but I believe it’s use is critical and justified in children with psychological disorders. It will be interesting to note the results of further studies which track participants over a period of years, such as that of Quentin.


            Barker, S. B., Barker, R. T., Dawson, K. S., & Kinsley, J. S. (1995). “he Supportive Role of Pets in the Childhood of Sexual Abuse Survivors. “ Retrieved September 20, 2007, from

            Blackman, D. (2003).”Visiting Pets and Animal Assisted Therapy.  “Retrieved September 20, 2007, from

            Crossroads Group. (1998).“What is Animal Assisted Therapy? “Retrieved September 20, 2007, from

            Duncan, S. L. (1995). “Loneliness: A Health Hazard of Modern Times.” Interactions, Volume 13(Issue 1).

Fawcett, Nicholas R. & Gullone, Eleanora (Date Unknown). Preventive Intervention for Conduct Disorder: Consideration of a Novel Approach Involving Animal-Assisted Therapy. Department of Psychology, Monash University. Retrieved September 28, 2007 from,+Consideration+of+a+novel+Approach+Involving+Animal+Assisted+Therapy&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=1&gl=us&client=firefox-a.

McNicolas, J., & Collis, G. M. (1995). “Relationships between Young People with Autism and Their Pets.” Retrieved September 20, 2007, from

            Natural Standard Monograph (2006). “Complementary and Alternative Medical Therapies.” Retrieved September 28, 2007, from