The Mighty Logo

How Animals Can Help Children With Disabilities

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Back in 2013, I unintentionally adopted the perfect cat for my family. At the time, I was simply looking for a companion for my other cat so she would (hopefully) adjust well to the birth of my first child. Shortly after adopting this cat, though, we learned that our sweet Bruce likely has cerebellar hypoplasia, a neurological disorder that can cause sudden jerky movements, loss of balance, and uncoordinated motion in cats.

While owning a cat with a disability wasn’t a huge deal initially, it became a sort of “happy accident” when my youngest daughter received a cerebral palsy diagnosis in 2018.

Over the past several years, I’ve watched my daughter bond with our cat in ways I would have never imagined. After she started physical therapy, my daughter would come home from her sessions and offer to practice the exercises and skills she learned during her sessions with our cat — a weekly event she later started calling Bruce’s “walking lessons.” When my daughter is having an exceptionally difficult day with her CP symptoms, she often sits on the couch, cuddles with Bruce, and talks to him about what’s bothering her.

Most importantly, though, my daughter frequently shares how Bruce helps her feel “less alone” because of their shared condition.

Through talking to other families and even adults who live with disabilities and chronic health conditions, I’ve learned that our experience isn’t all that unusual. In fact, there are many ways in which animals can help children with disabilities.

Depending on your child’s specific condition and the severity, they may qualify for a service dog. Service dogs undergo specialized training so they can assist a person with a disability or health condition with specific tasks. Sometimes these dogs may help children with hearing or vision impairments navigate their neighborhood, school building, and other public places. Other times, they can alert their handler or others if their handler experiences a medical emergency like a sudden drop in blood sugar or a seizure. For people who live with conditions that require the use of mobility aids, service animals can also provide physical support when the handler needs to transfer, and they can pick up or retrieve specific items their handler needs.

Even if your pet doesn’t undergo specialized dog training to become a service animal, though, they can still provide emotional support and other vital benefits for any child who lives with a disability or other health condition. In fact, pets often provide comfort and companionship to children in ways that their peers or even their parents cannot.

For children with conditions like autism, studies show that emotional support animals can bond with children in ways that humans cannot, which in turn boosts the child’s social skills and helps them form connections with humans as well. For children with mental health conditions like anxiety or PTSD, animals can provide comfort and ease their fears. This additional support can help children work through exposures or simply provide a way to cope with the strong emotions they feel in certain situations.

Or, in the case of my daughter, our cat Bruce helps her feel seen and validated in a way I certainly never could.

If you believe your child may benefit from a pet because of their disability or health condition, do your homework to determine what type or breed of animal will be the best match for your kid. Once you’ve narrowed down the options, it can be helpful to have your child visit with a few animals to see which one may be the best fit in terms of temperament and personality.

If you’re interested in obtaining a service dog to help your child with day-to-day life, you should first consult with your child’s treatment team to see if they believe your child would qualify for a service animal and benefit from one. Assistance Dogs International has a directory of reputable service dog organizations to help you locate one in your area.

Regardless of your child’s diagnosis and its severity, chances are an animal of some form will benefit your child in many ways. Whether they provide assistance with daily tasks or just comfort them on those difficult days, a pet can easily become your child’s best friend and help them thrive in life with a disability or medical condition.

Getty image by Tacstef.

Originally published: September 13, 2021
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home