Animal Therapy for Children

How the mental health of kids can benefit from pets

Proving that medicine is not the answer to every health-related condition, an unforeseen friendship has captured the hearts of millions while shedding light onto the benefits and services offered by therapy animals. This relationship between 6-year-old Iris Grace Halmshaw and her 2-year-old service cat, Thula, has helped the child learn to better socialize despite an early autism diagnosis.

Their Story

Whether playing with toys, painting outside or falling asleep together, Iris and her Maine Coon cat are almost inseparable. However, before Thula entered young Iris’s life, things were a little more challenging. According to a report by CNN,1 Iris’s parents experienced a “dark time” prior to their cat’s introduction into the family.

During this time, Iris battled irregular sleep patterns, obsessive behavior, refusal to make eye contact and a general sense of avoidance when put in social situations. Her severe form of autism also made taking baths and getting dressed extremely difficult, for Iris did not like the sensation of being touched. However, upon Thula’s arrival, all of these situations slowly became much more bearable for the child alongside her pet.

“Specifically for children with social disorders, behavioral-assistance animals offer the opportunity for a child to bond with another being who is completely nonjudgmental. Over time, the child will hopefully transfer that connection to the animal to people in his or her life,” explained Heather Silvio, PsyD, a psychologist at theDepartment of Veterans Affairs in North Las Vegas, Nev. “In my clinical opinion, behavioral-assistance animals can be most effective for individuals experiencing significant levels of anxiety, regardless of specific diagnosis.

“Proving effective, Iris has continued to develop a sense of openness with her companion, Thula, which she often lacked with other children or adults. Through these interactions, Iris has improved her speech, communication and ability to express herself while continuously making progressive strides towards enhanced socialization.

Other Benefits

Although Iris found therapy through her pet cat, numerous other animals, including dogs and horses, are known to be used for similar purposes. Physically, these animals have demonstrated the ability to lower their companion’s blood pressure, improve cardiovascular health, release endorphins, diminish overall physical pain and produce an automatic relaxation response.2

Capable of providing mental health benefits, therapy animals have also been known to lift spirits and lessen depression, decrease feelings of isolation and alienation, encourage communication and provide comfort. Similarly, this method of therapy can increase socialization, reduce boredom, lower anxiety, reduce loneliness and create motivation.

“Service animals help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. Research studies have shown that individuals display noticeable improvement in mood with the involvement of dogs during therapy,” commented Megan LoBue, coordinator of communication and development at the Calais School, a state-approved provider of special education for students with special needs located in Whippany, N.J. “We see it every day when our students light up when they see Cali and Cleo greet them in the morning. Students can visit with the dogs when they feel anxious, lonely, or depressed.”

In terms of literacy, therapeutic animal companions may additionally help children focus better, provide non-stressful, non-judgmental environments and increase self-confidence. This is due to the notion that animals accept their owners as they are, offering patients the ability to wholeheartedly interact with them while safe in the knowledge that there is no hidden agenda.

Although the ability of behavioral-assistance animals to improve the quality of life for their patients cannot be fully predicted, this method of intervention comes with far less probable side effects than medication. Instead, the biggest concern with incorporating service animal aid deals with safety and sanitation – elements that stringent facility rules seek to protect against.

With the positives outweighing the negatives, behavioral assistance animals have proven to be an avenue of alternative therapy worth considering under many circumstances. Improving the way many adults and children are able to conduct themselves throughout daily life, these animals are transforming into much more than mere pets.


  1. CNN. Portrait of a 6-year-old artist with autism and her therapy cat.
  2. PAWS for People. Benefits of Pet Therapy.