Autism and Pets: three questions you should ask before start looking for a pet for your child on the spectrum

August 14, 2020

As a huge animal fanatic, the want to advocate for the delights of being a pet owner is my natural inclination. In fact, I feel like the fish, cat, dog, gecko, and tortoise currently in my home would feel betrayed if I didn’t do so. However, in good conscience, I cannot say this because as with most things, it really does depend - it depends on your child and also on the pet chosen. 

Angela Pao

AnswersNow BCBA

As a huge animal fanatic, the want to advocate for the delights of being a pet owner is my natural inclination. In fact, I feel like the fish, cat, dog, gecko, and tortoise currently in my home would feel betrayed if I didn’t do so. However, in good conscience, I cannot say this because as with most things, it really does depend - it depends on your child and also on the pet chosen. 

Pets can be a great source of companionship, and they can teach your children how to be responsible. But how your pet and your child bond cannot be guaranteed (although by carefully selecting some pets over others, some of this risk can be avoided). I have worked with enough families with children with autism to have seen both sides of this coin. There have been children with autism that have really bonded with their pets - in cases I have known, a large pet tortoise and a large dog. One parent recounted that their child was really “in their own world” but their Labrador helped draw them out, at first as a confidante and then as a source of comfort when things felt chaotic. I have also worked with families where parents have gotten their children pets they never really gravitated towards, only to have those pets given away at a later date. I still wonder what happened to that bearded dragon.

Here are some suggestions to help with this decision:

  • Has your child gravitated towards animals?
    If yes, perhaps this is worthwhile to explore. If not, have you exposed your child to different animals to assess their reaction? This is where I would start. There are some children with autism (and children in general) that have fears of certain animals. I have worked with some parents that have brought dogs into their home under the pretense that this will help their child desensitize to this fear. This did not always work well in the cases I have seen and can be traumatic to both the child and the animal. 

  • Has your child ever exhibited aggression towards an animal?
    If so, it would be a good idea to teach them how to be gentle towards animals before bringing one into your household. Also, if your child is prone to being a little rougher (e.g. can at times squeeze too hard or pull hair), I would refrain from getting a smaller animal like a hamster that may not be able to sustain that rough a touch and/or may bite back in defense.

  • What is the purpose of bringing the animal into your home?
    If it is to teach responsibility, fish might be a good option as they require some care, but not much, and are calming to look at. Some lizards, such as geckos, are also quite docile and easy to care for. If you feel like your child can benefit from the companionship of an animal and seems open to it, a dog or a cat may be a good option. In a study done in 2013 by a research fellow Gretchen Carlisle at the University of Missouri, Carlisle found that of the 70 parents with children with autism, nearly two-thirds of the parents reportedly own dogs. Of that number, 94% reported their children were bonded to their dogs. With that being said, the breed and age of the dog should also be considered. Dogs of larger breeds tend to have calmer dispositions. Younger puppies may be more difficult as they tend to also have more energy. 


With special considerations, a pet can be a wonderful addition to your family! For more autism parenting resources visit getanswersnow.com.


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