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therapy animals Margaret Puckette
therapy animals Margaret Puckette

A therapy animal is dedicated to the child in need and not a family pet. The child should choose the creature that is most meaningful to them, and has qualities that make them therapeutic.

An amazing variety of creatures can make good therapy animal, not just dogs or cats.  In fact, the family dog or cat may not be the best for your child.  They need a very personal creature just for themselves.  This includes “pocket pets” like ferrets, guinea pigs; or unconventional like birds, reptiles and even insects.  All of these have become an excellent therapy animal for children with any disability:  physical, behavioral, and cognitive. The right therapy animal offers unconditional love.  Or they like to hang out (bearded dragon), allow touching (mammals, reptiles), interact (birds), or look pretty (fish). The ideal animal makes your child feel special.  Measurable benefits have been seen with many creatures “ranging from dogs, cats, birds, and fish to goats and snakes.”

If you are considering therapy animal, strategically pick the right animal.

When choosing a pet, monitor your child’s interactions when first introduced to the creature. Be honest with yourself, the therapy animal you think is best may not be the best for your child.  Look to your child for clues.  What behaviors does this pet instill?  Hyperactive and barking dogs, aloof cats, nervous rodents or noisy birds don’t work and can be outright stressful. Pay attention to how much stress a fussy pet can cause.

What is the right animal?

  • The animal’s natural manner fits your child’s emotional needs, for example:
    • Quiet and calming if your child is anxious or distractible;
    • Soft or affectionate for a child who needs attention;
    • Interactive–for a child who needs connection: a bird that speaks, or a dog that follows instructions;
  • The animal likes to be with your child for long periods. The animal has a preference for your child.
  • Your child is able to treat the pet humanely. (Intentionally or not, animals can be abused by troubled children.)
  • You appreciate the animal too and aren’t concerned about mess, smell, hair, or feathers in your home.
  • You accept that you are the one responsible for the animal’s care.  This pet is a therapist first and not a lesson in responsibility. Your child might take responsibility or needs to learn responsibility another way.


Most people are familiar with therapy dogs. Their natural affinity with humans is the reason why dogs are the most popular of pets.  And research shows dogs reduce depression and anxiety.  If you are interested in getting a puppy to train as a therapy animal, you can find instructions on how to train certified therapy dogs.  (Real certified dogs need much more training because they must be trustworthy around fragile people in nursing homes, hospitals, and schools.) “How to train a therapy dog”


With marvelous personalities and good energy, the parrots and hooked beak birds are highly intelligent and interactive.  They will loyally bond with their owner for life. These colorful birds can be trained to perch on a finger or shoulder, lie in one’s hand, or play with small toys.

“Patients hold and stroke cockatiels so tame that they often fall asleep in a human lap.” Maureen Horton, the founder of “On a Wing and a Prayer” tells of “non-responsive patients in wheelchairs who suddenly begin speaking again while petting a cockatiel as their relatives weep at the transformation.” She described bringing her birds to visit a group of violent teenage delinquents who clamored to touch a cockatoo named Bela. “For a few minutes,” Horton says, “these hardened criminals became children again.”
— “On a Wing and a Prayer,” a pet-assisted therapy program, uses birds to visit patients.” Connie Cronley,


Fish can’t be held, but few things beat the visual delight and serenity of a beautiful aquarium.  They have personalities and form interactive communities in a tank, and are fun and peaceable to watch. There is a reason aquariums are common in waiting rooms and clinics, lobbies, and hospitals.  They help people relax and calmly pass the time.

“Pocket pets”

Little mammals that like to be cuddled and carried around, often in pockets, are good therapy:  ferrets, mice, rats, gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs, and very small dogs. It is best to select a young animal that is calm and won’t bite, and handle it gently and often so that it becomes accustomed to being held. Challenges with many pocket pets include running away or escaping their enclosures, urine smell, and unwanted breeding. As the main caretaker, you will want to be comfortable with their needs.


Snakes and lizards are also excellent pets and demand little attention, and they are readily accepted by children. My bearded dragon, Spike, comes with me to my support groups. Dragons are a very docile species–safe with young children and popular with teens and parents. Other good species are iguanas, and geckos.

“I’d have to say my Leopard Gecko Mindy is very much therapy for me. She really is my therapy lizard, she wants to sit with me when I’m upset and tolerates me, which even my two dogs and cat won’t. She’ll just find a place on me and curl up and be like “I’m here, I won’t leave you.””
–User name “Midori”, Herp Center Network


Properly-trained horses are powerful healers for the most difficult children.  Certified horse therapy programs are medically certified and  often covered by health insurance. Children and teens with many disabilities can benefit.  This includes those with physical disabilities such as paralysis and loss of limbs; mental/cognitive disabilities such as development disabilities; and children with mental and behavioral disorders. The horses selected out for training are chosen for their steady, grounded demeanor, and if they respond safely if antagonized by a child.

Horse therapists have special training, and they ‘partner’ with the horse as a team.  Horses are intelligent and interactive like dogs, and quite capable of being a co-therapist.  A horse also has a warm soft hide to lean on.  They empower riders sitting up high and in control of the reins. On a horse, a child senses the animal’s rhythmic bodily movement, which stimulates the physical senses and steadies the child. According to parents and children in these programs, horses change lives.  New research proves horses are genuinely effective:  Study Suggests That Equine Therapy is Effective.


How has your child’s pet improved mental health?
Your comments help others who read this article.

If you need one-on-one support for parenting your child, I may be able to help with answers and practical steps.  You can find out more about my peer counseling services here.

The science behind animal therapy

Are dogs man’s best therapist?
Psychiatric Times. H. Steven Moffic, MD. February 29, 2012

Note: this is an excellent article by a psychiatrist who moved from disbelief to belief that dogs have a genuine therapeutic value, healing some of the most psychiatrically challenging children.

Children’s best friend, dogs help autistic children adapt (summary)
Journal: Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2011, Universite de Montreal

Dogs may not only be man’s best friend, they may also have a special role in the lives of children with special needs. According to a new study, specifically trained service dogs can help reduce the anxiety and enhance the socialization skills of children with Autism Syndrome Disorders (ASDs). The findings may lead to a relatively simple solution to help affected children and their families cope with these challenging disorders.

“Our findings showed that the dogs had a clear impact on the children’s stress hormone levels,” says Sonia Lupien, senior researcher and a professor at the Université de Montréal Department of Psychiatry and Director of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress at Louis-H. Lafontaine Hospital, “I have not seen such a dramatic effect before.”

Pet therapy: how animals and humans heal each other. (summary)
by Julie Rovner, March 5, 2012, National Public Radio

“A growing body of scientific research is showing that our pets can make us healthy, or healthier. “That helps explain the increasing use of animals — dogs and cats mostly, but also birds, fish and even horses — in settings ranging from hospitals and nursing homes to schools, jails and mental institutions.”

“In the late 1970s that researchers started to uncover the scientific underpinnings animal therapy. One of the earliest studies, published in 1980, found that heart attack patients who owned pets lived longer than those who didn’t. Another early study found that petting one’s own dog could reduce blood pressure.

“More recently, says Rebecca Johnson, a nurse who heads the Research Center for Human/Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, studies have been focusing on the fact that interacting with animals can increase people’s level of the hormone oxytocin. “That is very beneficial for us,” says Johnson. “Oxytocin helps us feel happy and trusting.” Which, Johnson says, may be one of the ways that humans bond with their animals over time.”

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  • A student says:

    This is amazing! Do you know the peoples emails? I’d love to ask them questions… btw I’m doing a school report on therapy pets so this really helps!

    • Hello,
      I can’t give away personal information like this, sorry, but I’m glad you found others’ stories helpful. Perhaps you could cite this article instead, or excerpt a quote or two. You might also try asking people you know about their pets, like: what does your pet mean to you? how does your pet help you or make you feel? You will probably hear appreciative things like those shared in this article which show how pets are therapy for anyone.

      Take care and good luck on your report,


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