Pet Therapy for Cerebral Palsy

Photo by Josh Hild on

Pet therapy, or animal-assisted therapy, is a great way for children with cerebral palsy to get greater benefits from physical therapy sessions as well as other types of treatment. Working with animals is proven to be beneficial in many ways and, when added to standard therapies, can help children meet their goals.

Parents should be cautious about choosing therapists and animals that are trained and licensed and have experience working with children with cerebral palsy.

What is Pet Therapy?

Also referred to as animal therapy or animal-assisted therapy, pet therapy is the use of specially trained animals to promote wellness, boost mood, aid therapy, and other broad uses in mental and physical health care. [1]

Pet therapy can be informal, such as when a therapy dog visits a nursing home or hospital to cheer up residents and patients, or it can be more formal with guided therapy sessions that include the animal as a central aid or participant.

Dogs are most commonly used in pet therapy, but all kinds of animals may be involved including cats, horses, and even guinea pigs. A study published by the U.S. National Institutes of Health indicated that “individual and social benefits gained by dog-assisted therapy may aid in the prevention, improvement and development of children with various disabilities.” [2]

Specific situations in which pet therapy may be used include chemotherapy sessions, dental work and other potentially scary or stressful procedures for children, or even adults, physical therapy to rehabilitate from an injury or a stroke, mental health therapy sessions, or for residents in long-term care facilities.

Pet therapy is also commonly used to assist children with disabilities, including cerebral palsy.

The Benefits of Working with Animals

For anyone, including children with special needs, there are proven benefits of working with animals of all types in unstructured or more formal settings. For mental health, being around animals and interacting with them has been proven to lower anxiety, increase relaxation, reduce loneliness, provide comfort, and increase mental stimulation. [3]

These benefits alone are helpful, but they are also useful in breaking the ice or any initial resistance or fear about going through a therapy session.

There are also physical benefits of working with animals, which include lowering blood pressure and heart rate, improving cardiovascular health, and reducing pain. Petting and being around animals has been shown to increase hormones like serotonin and reduce others, like cortisol, which together promote less stress in the body. Pet owners are known to live longer than people who do not have pets in the home.

Animal-Assisted Physical Therapy for Cerebral Palsy

One important use of animals for children with cerebral palsy is to assist with physical therapy. Physical therapy is an important aspect of treatment for most children with cerebral palsy because it helps with muscle tone and balance, mobility, pain reduction, and other physical issues. There are a number of reasons to have an animal in the therapy session, including:

  • Working with animals during physical therapy helps children meet their goals.
  • Therapy sessions are less stressful and children are more engaged and enthusiastic about doing the work.
  • Animals provide physical support to help children perform exercises.
  • Children are often more willing to use the animal than an object for support.
  • Animals motivate children to work harder, to meet their goals, and to return for subsequent sessions.

Pet Therapy Promotes Mental and Emotional Health

The role of animals in helping children with cerebral palsy is not limited to physical health and mobility. Children with cerebral palsy often struggle with mental health issues and behavioral challenges. For instance, ADHD, depression, and anxiety are common coexisting conditions.

Working with animals can help improve mood, reduce anxiety, and reduce stress. Animals can also provide many of the same benefits in behavioral therapy sessions as they do in physical therapy: motivation, support, encouragement, and someone to bond with and help a child be more engaged and enthusiastic about treatment[4]

Other Benefits of Pet Therapy for Children with Cerebral Palsy

Physical benefits and mental health benefits are important aspects of pet therapy, but children with cerebral palsy can also get other benefits from working with animals. One study of disabled children with cerebral palsy set goals for therapy and used trained dogs to assist.

The children previously were all unable to complete standard therapy sessions, but all completed the animal sessions and met their goals. The animals were able to help them break down resistance and fear and to carry on with successful therapy sessions.

These children also saw improvements in communication, becoming better able to tell others what they need or want. They developed greater empathy from working with the dog and were better able to ask for help and provide help to others as a result. Their social skills improved thanks to these benefits they received from working with animals.

Specialized Types of Animal Therapy

Dogs are often used as therapy animals because of how easy they are to train and their love of people, but other animals can be trained to work with special needs children as well. Two interesting options for children with cerebral palsy include equine therapy and dolphin therapy.

Equine therapy is working with horses, which may include riding, petting, or actually caring for horses. Exactly what happens in the sessions depends on an individual’s goals, but working with horses has the added benefits of getting children outside and improving self-confidence.

Dolphin therapy is not common, but it is practiced in some specialized settings. Sessions with trained dolphins can provide many of the same benefits as other types of animal therapy, but there are additional potential benefits.

For a child with mobility issues and pain, as are common with cerebral palsy, it can be easier to work in the water. However, dolphin therapy is relatively new and there is little available evidence that it helps. The number of facilities offering this expensive therapy is growing, and parents should be cautious and only work with those that are staffed by trained and licensed therapists.

Therapy Animals in the Hospital

Children with cerebral palsy may have to spend time in the hospital for treatments, for surgery, and for recovery after surgery. Informal visits from pet therapy programs can help these children feel more relaxed in a stressful environment.

They provide comfort, reduce anxiety, make the hospital setting feel more like home, and offer a feeling of love and acceptance for children who are struggling. They can also help children communicate with and relate better to doctors and nurses.

Pet therapy can be a great way for children with cerebral palsy and other disabilities to get more out of their therapy sessions. From meeting physical therapy goals for mobility to learning how to better socialize and be more engaged with treatment, animals can provide a number of benefits for children with special needs.

As long as parents are careful to select services with trained, experienced, and licensed therapists and animals, pet therapy can be a great addition to a child’s treatment plan.

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