Animal Therapy for Children with Cerebral Palsy and Special Needs

What is Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Animal-assisted Therapy (AAT) is any variety of therapeutic intervention which focuses on interactions between a person and an animal intended to improve physical, cognitive, emotional, or behavioral problems. This method of therapy is supportive and goal-oriented, and is often implemented alongside more traditional methods of treatment. The goal of animal-assisted therapy is to foster a human-animal bond in order to promote the psychological, emotional, interactive, and physical well-being of an individual.

How Does Animal-Assisted Therapy Work?

Animal-assisted therapy focuses on human-animal bonding. Therapy animals often serve as companions, in addition to their therapeutic function as physical aids (in the case of horses, for example).  Interaction between humans and animals has been shown to increase certain brain chemicals that in turn decrease blood pressure and initiate relaxation. Through these methods, AAT may help relieve the psychological side-effects of chronic disease and may help to reduce agitated behavior.

Who Benefits from Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Animal-assisted therapy is a useful supplementary treatment for individuals of nearly all ages and with many different conditions.  People with the following disabilities, conditions, and injuries may benefit from animal-assisted therapy:

What Forms of Animal-Assisted Therapy Exist?

Dog-Assisted Therapies

Therapy dogs are used in places like hospitals, skilled nursing centers, and libraries for therapeutic purposes, including social and emotional support. They are used by handlers to help people with a broad range of health concerns, and can often be found in group settings.

Therapy Dogs and Service Animals Are Not the Same Thing

The differences between a therapy dog and a service dog are fairly important. Service animals often have very different training, intended function, and legal protection than therapy dogs. Therapy animals are trained for social tasks (being friendly and well-behaved) and are not trained to help particular individuals complete activities of daily living. Service dogs are trained to complete specific tasks for specific people, and are taught to focus on that individual specifically. In this way, service dogs and therapy dogs are trained very differently. Due to their differences in training and overall purpose, service animals and therapy dogs are subject to different legal protection. Namely, service dogs are permitted to accompany their owners into many restricted spaces (for example grocery stores, libraries, etc.), while therapy dogs are not given legal permission into theses spaces.

Service dogs are trained to perform specific duties or tasks in order to work with individuals with disabilities. These animals are trained to respond to basic commands, withstand distraction, and adjust to commands from the owner. Generally, service dogs can help individuals with cerebral palsy or other disabilities improve their physical, cognitive, emotional, and social function. More specifically, these specially trained dogs can:

  • Help an individual with sensory limitations (i.e. help someone with impaired vision navigate a room)
  • Help an individual with mobility limitations (i.e. help someone with impaired mobility open a door)
  • Help with therapeutic goals, such as exercises or occupational tasks, by acting as a motivational tool
  • Help with social and emotional well-being by relieving isolation and providing a safe, non-judgmental space

Within the general category of service dogs, there are various subtypes of service dogs that may be helpful for individuals with an array of disabilities. Service dogs can be trained to specifically function as:

  • Guide Dogs: which help to guide a person with visual limitations
  • Hearing Dogs: which work to alert a person who is deaf or hearing impaired to noises around them
  • Mobility Dogs: which can assist a person in carrying out tasks such as opening doors, or picking up items. Additionally, specific dogs can help provide stability to an individual with the help of a harness.
  • Medical Alert Dogs: which alert their owners of changes in body function that are cause for alert (changes in blood pressure, presence of imminent seizure, etc.)
  • Psychiatric Service Dogs: which can assist a person with a psychiatric disorder by performing a specific task. Note: the service dog must have a specific task assigned to it, its primary purpose is not for emotional support.

In contrast to service dogs, therapy dogs work to assist in the therapeutic rehabilitation of individuals.  This includes focus on the cognitive, emotional, social, and sometimes physical aspects of therapy.  Due to this, therapy dogs must be well-tempered, well-socialized, and comfortable in busy or chaotic situations. There are two specific subsets of therapy dogs that are often used for people with disabilities:

  • Therapeutic Visitation Dogs: which often attend schools, libraries, or other public facilities with the intent to lift spirits, ease anxiety and stress, and motivate individuals through their affectionate nature.
  • Animal-Assisted Therapy Dogs: these dogs are specifically trained to work alongside a physical therapy program, they are often found in rehabilitation facilities.  These canines help a person’s physical or mental therapy by helping an individual master limb movement, fine motor skills, and everyday occupational tasks that involve caring for an animal.

Horse-Assisted Therapies

Horse-Assisted Therapy (also known as Equine-Assisted Therapy) can take a variety of forms and can be used as a method of physical, occupational, speech, and/or emotional therapy. Studies show that, when applied alongside conventional therapy methods, horse-assisted therapy can reduce spasticity in individuals with spastic cerebral palsy. There are two main forms of equine-assisted therapy that are often used for individuals with cerebral palsy or other disabilities:

  • Hippotherapy (HPOT): Hippotherapy uses the movement of a horse to improve the neurological function, sensory processing, and overall physical function of an individual. During a hippotherapy exercise, the motion of the horse moves the rider’s body in a way that is very similar to the range of motion used in human walking. The goal of hippotherapy is to foster a reaction to the horse’s movement and in turn to improve physical function.
  • Therapeutic Horseback Riding: While hippotherapy focuses on the movement of the horse, therapeutic horseback riding focuses more on the bond created between a rider and their horse. Individuals are taught specific horseback riding skills that have a particular rehabilitative purpose, and are encouraged to form a companionship with the horse.

Dolphin-Assisted Therapies

Dolphin-Assisted Therapy is a less well-known form of animal therapy, though its benefits may be just as effective as other forms. Dolphin-Assisted Therapy is oftentimes used in attempts to improve attention-span, speech, motion, and behavior. Like other forms of AAT, swimming with dolphins is usually used as a complementary or recreational form of assistive treatment.

Other Therapeutic Animals

In addition to these three main categories, some therapeutic animal organizations employ the the following animals for therapeutic purposes:

  • Cats
  • Llamas and Alpacas
  • Rabbits
  • Rats
  • Guinea Pigs
  • Miniature Pigs
  • Birds

Support for Animal-Assisted Therapy

Animal-Assisted Therapy is accepted across many healthcare domains as a complementary form of therapeutic intervention. With that being said, this form of therapy also receives a fair amount of pushback regarding its true therapeutic effectiveness. Several studies have been carried out to determine the truth about Animal-Assisted Therapy, and the research (reviewed here) reveals the following evidence-based observations:

  • Animal-Assisted Therapy has been shown to reduce certain brain chemicals associated with stress and anxiety.
  • Animal-Assisted Therapy has been shown to increase certain brain chemicals associated with healthy behavior and social function.
  • Continued Animal-Assisted Therapy is associated with significant behavioral improvements in children, and significant reduction in depression in older adults.

These benefits are convincing and significant, but the small sample sizes of these studies and the lack of control groups used calls for further research in the area. For a plain-language explanation of the controversy surrounding animal-assisted therapy, please see this Scientific American post.

If you are interested in animal-assisted therapy for your child, you may find it helpful to speak to your child’s pediatrician.


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2 replies
  1. Frank Delaware says:

    Thank you for all this great information about animal therapy. One thing that really stood out to me is that they can actually help with social and emotional well being! I knew that I liked dogs, but I had no idea that they could do so much more for a person.

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