For some people, owning a pet greatly improves both their mental and physical wellbeing - research shows interacting with animals reduces blood pressure, lessens anxiety and improves social interactions.
Many autistic individuals and their families find pet ownership particularly beneficial. A study by Lincoln University, for instance, found that autistic children experienced fewer meltdowns, and their parents felt less stressed, if a dog was nearby. For others, however, pet ownership comes with too many challenges.
As with all things, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach.
This resource includes
- the responses to our survey about PDA and animals carried out in February/March 2021
- some tips and information relating to pets and PDA
- a case study sharing the benefits Sarah, an adult PDAer, gains from her assistance dog Millie-Bear.
94% of respondents own, or have owned, a pet. 50% of these were dogs and cats (in line with UK average pet ownership) with a wide range of other pets and animals:
92% respondents find pets beneficial in a range of different ways …
- Sensory benefits
Pets of all sizes can (often unknowingly) deliver deep pressure therapy. The body weight of an animal activates the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system and helps to reduce anxiety associated with the sympathetic (fight or flight) system. For some, the touch and feel of an animal is more tolerable than physical contact from other people. Simply stroking an animal also helps many people to relax:
“His turtle sits on his lap during online classes!”
“He now sleeps the whole night through with the dog on his bed.”
“Lying with her dog helps her to relax.”
“She lies across my son’s lap and, even if he’s anxious, he strokes her without realising he’s doing it.”
“The snake’s weight around my shoulders is very calming.”
“My daughter cannot deal with physical contact with a human but gets a lot of benefit from hugging our small dog.”
“As my son loses his ability to cope, either he finds the dog or the dog comes to find him (she fully senses his meltdown) and she sits calmly whilst he hugs her.”
Alongside tactile input, animals provide other sensory benefits; some owners of fish and reptiles find watching their pets hypnotic and relaxing:
“The noise from our fish tank is very calming.”
“It’s soothing to sit and watch the fish in the tank.”
“The snake’s slow, calm movements are like natural mindfulness.”
- Communication benefits
Some find communicating through their pets easier than speaking face-to-face:
"She says how the dog feels but it's actually her.”
“My son projects his feelings onto our dog telling us how the dog is feeling about certain situations. Previously, he has been completely unable to voice any emotional understanding.”
Parents report using their pets as a novel way to communicate with their children:
“We do silly pet-voices when we speak to our child.”
“We use the dog to talk to our PDA teen - what would seem unreasonable coming from us is acceptable coming from the dog (made up voice).”
- Personal benefits
While the demand of caring for pets is challenging for some, for others it builds confidence, self-esteem and increases well-being:
"Keeping chickens is a skill my son developed. It’s good for his self-esteem when very little was making him feel positive.”
"Being able to take care of the pets increases self-esteem and confidence, especially when feeling bad about being unable to complete other demands.”
- Emotional benefits
Many parents find their children are better able to regulate their emotions when in contact with, or near, their pet:
“Stroking the dog helps calm breathing.”
“She sits with her during meltdowns.”
“Regulates by stroking the cat and being sat on by the dog.”
“Our dog is my son’s constant companion in a scary world; whatever happens, he knows she’s there.”
Some people find showing emotion to their pet easier than expressing their feelings to other humans:
“Having guinea pigs has brought out an affectionate side in my son that I'd not seen before.”
“Being around animals makes my child relaxed and grounded.”
“All animals are non-judgemental. The behaviour of cats can be likened to PDA behaviour (can't tell a cat what to do, they set the routine etc - why do we accept this in our cats but not our children?)”
- Social benefits
Pets can help deflect attention when out, thereby reducing anxiety around social situations:
"The bearded dragon has gone on walks around the estate which has meant my daughter has got to know and talk to people."
“He's given her confidence to go out and do things…”
“The dog was extremely beneficial in helping him leave our home and start talking.”
- Low demand relationships
Relationships with pets can feel less ‘demandy’ …
“I can just be there in that moment without any of the pressure that comes with human social interactions.”
“The cat is low demand - there for affection sometimes but independent and wanders off to do his own thing too, not needy.”
27% of respondents said that they or their child had benefited from animal therapy (of these just 6% were adults, so there may be a need for further research to see whether animal therapy is available and could be beneficial for PDA adults).
The majority found animal therapy beneficial …
“My son goes horseback riding and it is the calmest and most peaceful I've ever seen him.”
“My daughter's mood calms the minute she sits on the horse.”
“The therapy was outdoors at a farm. There were free range donkeys and cats. It was brilliant she loved it. It's the only therapy that's ever worked. She visibly relaxed as she got out of the car…”
“He learnt how to take gentle direction and instructions better regarding anything to do with the horse.”
“…it was calming and regulating, horses are low demand.”
“My daughter was excited to go to school to see the therapy dog. Once there, she felt calm and relaxed stroking the dog. It took the anxiety of school away for that moment in time.”
… but a few weren’t able to attend …
“Animal therapist handler too authoritative.”
“My daughter was offered equine therapy last year but, despite her love of horses, she couldn’t engage with it. The demands were too great.”
Challenges with pet ownership
Around 8% of people didn’t or don’t find pet ownership beneficial.
Some people found the demands of caring for a pet too much for themselves or for their child:
“I've realised that walking my dog 2 x a day is an implicit demand put on me.”
"She loves researching the animals she likes…quickly loses interest in their day to day care.”
Concern over ensuring the safety of pets when children are feeling anxious or in meltdown was mentioned quite often:
“Initially we had guinea pigs but our PDA son tormented them. They had to be locked in a shed when he wasn't at school.”
“My child with a PDA profile takes his anger out on the pet and punishes it.”
The unpredictable nature of some pets can also be a challenge:
“My daughter did not like our puppy. She thought it was too excitable and unpredictable. She became terrified of it.”
“He wants to have control over all the animals...!”
Tips and information
Hilary Armour, CEO of the charity Dogs for Autism, has worked with many PDA individuals and families and kindly shared some helpful information with us:
- With PDA, dogs have been particularly helpful in relation to transitions and reducing demands around daily routine. She explained that dogs “remove parents as the catalyst for demands”. Some PDA children who struggle with daily demands, such as getting up and dressed, may better tolerate being woken by their dog, or dressing by playing games of ‘fetch’ with items of clothes.
- Hilary advises that some dogs may be best moved away during a child’s meltdown, but they can help calm the “after-shocks” and often prevent a further escalation of emotion.
- Hilary once placed a dog with a student who had difficulty adjusting to university life, particularly around keeping to a timetable and arriving on time for lectures. He felt anxious because of the attention he received from his fellow students when he walked in late. Once his dog started going to lectures, no one noticed him because they were so distracted by, and delighted to see, his companion.
- It’s important for all dogs, however well trained, to express normal dog-behaviours. Some individuals may feel anxious if their dog shows unpredictable behaviours that don’t align with their expectation of what a dog should do. According to Hilary, teenagers in particular often focus on what their dog doesn’t do (or does badly), instead of the tasks they carry out well. It can be difficult to accept that dogs can’t be ‘micromanaged’. The flip side is that learning to give a dog freedom and choice can be a helpful way to learn about the complexities of human relationships.
- Owning a dog can be a demand in itself; Hilary only places dogs with families who have a support network in place to help care for them. Young adults, who have moved away from their families, may need to “tag-team” their dog with others to share the demands of daily care. The benefits of owning a dog often outweighs any feelings of duty and burden.
Charities and organisation
Over the last decade, a number of UK charities have established programmes to train and place dogs with autistic children and their families. Dogs learn highly individualised tasks to cater for each person’s specific needs, this differs to training for other assistance dogs (such as Guide Dogs) that develops a more prescriptive list of skills. The demand for these specialist dogs is so high that some charities now help families train their existing pet dogs. These charities may be worth contacting:
Interacting with, or riding, horses can also be very beneficial. The Riding for the Disabled Association offers both riding therapy (hippotherapy) and practical handling sessions (such as grooming and learning to care for horses).
Most areas offer some form of animal assisted therapy or therapeutic handling facilities or specialist farms – you can find these via your local authority and some are also listed in the National Autistic Society’s autism services directory.
If you can recommend other organisations please do let us know.
Some things to consider
Before getting a pet of any kind, it’s worth considering a couple of points ...
- Individuals with a natural inclination towards animals are more likely to benefit from living with a pet.
- Spending more time with friends’ pets or helping out at shelters can be a good 'trial' to see whether being around animals is helpful, before committing fully.
- Pets are a commitment both financially and time-wise; it’s good to have back-up plans to help with their daily care.
- Consider the safety of your family and that of your pet; even placid animals can behave unpredictably if they feel threatened or are frightened.
- Veterinary staff offer free advice about choosing, and caring for, a pet. Medical care will inevitably be a part of every pet’s life. If visiting the vet causes anxiety, you may find that your surgery can make some adaptations, for instance many vets offer longer appointments at quieter times with consistent members of staff and some are part of the Hidden Disabilities Lanyard Scheme and will do their upmost to help you access their services as easily as possible.
- Whilst dogs may be the obvious choice for assistance pets, any animal can be a suitable companion. Cats’ independence can suit some people better and some of their ‘behaviours’ can feel quite relatable (see the book All Cats Are On The Autism Spectrum by Kathy Hoopmann); small ‘furries’ like guinea pigs can be quite simple to care for and may be good if individuals feel anxious around larger animals; rabbits are adaptable to living indoors or outdoors but can find over-handling stressful and ideally like to live in groups; most reptiles are quite low-maintenance and can be an interesting pet to study and talk about.
- It’s important to check that anyone selling or breeding pets for sale is reputable, and it may be worth considering a rescue pet.
- An inevitable part of pet ownership involves dealing with their death. This may be sudden or could result from a long term illness. Either way, it can be very difficult for some to process.
Sarah and Millie-Bear case study
I was diagnosed with autism and Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD) at the age of 27. I strongly identify with a PDA profile however, here in Edinburgh, it isn’t formally recognised. Even doing pleasurable things, like reading a book or playing my harp, can feel like a demand. My husband knows he needs to ask me to do tasks in a particular way otherwise I won’t do them!
We made the decision to get a dog to help me better manage my CPTSD. Our dog-ownership journey wasn’t straight forward though. Our first dog was from an unknown breeder and, despite consulting dog behaviourists and trainers, he just didn’t work out in our family. Our dog-breeder friend helped us find him a good home.
The same friend, who donates dogs to become autism assistance dogs, offered us her own favourite dog as she was too old to breed from anymore. Milly-Bear came to us at the age of 5 and we haven’t looked back.
The waiting list for assistance dogs is long and, because adults don’t qualify, this was the only way for us to get the dog we needed. We trained Milly-Bear ourselves with support from behaviourists and specialist dog trainers. She’s now fully trained and works as my assistance dog carrying out specific tasks as well as generally supporting our family’s emotional needs.
Milly-Bear and I share such a strong bond that she can often pre-empt my emotions and help me to regulate myself. If I start to pace or ‘stim’, Milly-Bear will perform deep-pressure therapy. She climbs onto me, paws at me and nuzzles her face against me until I feel OK. Her bodyweight calms me and helps me switch from my panicky ‘fight or flight’ mode to a more balanced state of mind.
If I’m having flashbacks, she’ll maintain eye contact with me to help slow my breathing and help me relax. Even at the gym, when she’s on her mat at the other side of the room, she stays focused on me and holds eye contact if I need her.
If I’m experiencing sensory overload, Milly-Bear is on high alert and performs deep pressure therapy if I need it. Just stroking her and having her close by can sometimes be enough to ground me and deescalate my feelings. After overload, Milly-Bear stays with me and falls asleep on my feet until I feel recovered.
Milly-Bear needs to follow a daily routine in terms of her meal times and exercise. We share such a strong bond that following this routine doesn’t feel like a demand. Looking after her actually helps me; she needs her daily walks so we go out whatever the weather.
“Milly-Bear feels like a part of me and is the reason why I can manage to get out there!”
My advice to people who are thinking of getting a dog is:
- Choose wisely - temperament is so important. Consider older dogs as it can be hard to assess a puppy’s personality.
- Find a good dog trainer and behaviourist - assistance dogs need to be able to perform specific tasks as well as be emotionally supportive.
- Public access training is essential - dogs need to be able to block out all distractions and focus on you.
Milly-Bear and I have an Instagram account and share our story to help raise awareness about CPTSD and PDA. I’m happy to for people to contact me for advice and to ask any questions.