The essential role of the pet for the child and his/her family

In France, more than 50% of households own a pet. The latter plays a major role in the development of both neurotypical and neuro-atypical children. Researchers from Rennes in collaboration with colleagues from Reims highlight the benefits, and the limits, of an animal presence within the family (publication in RIEF, Dec. 2022).
Dessin d'Olympe, une petite fille de 10 ans atteinte de TSA. Crédit : Nicolas Dollion

The strength of the child-animal bond

Since the 19th century, the pet has become a companion animal. This relationship has proven to have a positive influence on the well-being of humans and, more extensively, children. The benefits of this interaction vary depending on various factors such as the length and quality of the relationship with the pet, and range from improved immune systems to reduced stress or obesity. In addition to improved health, 65% of parents report that their children benefit from the comfort, distraction and stress reduction provided by the animal. They also reportedly gain autonomy and responsibility by taking care of the animal.

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and the unique relationship with animals

Children with ASD have varying degrees of neurodevelopmental disorders, characterised by difficulties in communicating, interacting with others and developing verbal and motor skills. Despite difficulties in communicating with human beings, they spontaneously show an attraction for animals whose facial expressions, particularly through their eyes, seem to be easier to integrate. This unique relationship will provide children with this disorder with additional benefits to those previously mentioned.

First, there was a clear improvement in their social, language and sharing skills. The researchers also observed a reduction in depressive symptoms and greater self-confidence in these children. Problem behaviours (tantrums, running away) were reduced in the presence of a companion and also improved the sleep and health of these youngsters. Beyond the specific relationship of the child-animal pair, external exchanges seem to increase thanks to a reduction in judgement as well as the promotion of benevolent attitudes of others towards this pair. In short, benevolence implies for these children a better relationship with themselves and the world.

The issue of whether or not to include a pet or service animal

Specially trained to meet the needs of young people with ASD and their families, service dogs have been shown to have many benefits. Research has shown that the benefits of the animal, whether pet or service animal, extend to the whole household and contribute to the dynamics of the family sphere. The animal acts as a social catalyst and leads to greater cohesion between individuals. Parents of children with ASD reported feeling more secure and less stressed. As problem behaviours are reduced, family members can enjoy a better quality of life through, for example, more walks and outings.

However, the cost and burden of adopting a pet or service animal should not be overlooked. The animal may present an additional difficulty if it is not properly integrated on arrival. It is necessary to remain attentive to the evolution of the animal-child relationship, since it would guarantee these benefits. Beforehand, it is best to ensure that the child is ready for and attracted to this possible interaction with the animal. Characteristics such as the species of the animal or the severity of the ASD should be taken into account in order to assess the suitability of the two profiles.

The integration of an animal must be the result of a long process of reflection. In the case of an assistance dog, this process is accompanied by the handing-over organisations, such as the Handi’Chiens association (France) or the Fondation Mira (Quebec). However, this integration undoubtedly has many benefits for the child and his family. The improvement of the social and emotional development of the child has been widely proven and is reinforced by the benevolence observed in people outside the family.

References and collaborations

L’animal de compagnie dans la vie des enfants au développement typique et atypique et de leur famille
Nicolas Dollion, Marine Grandgeorge
La revue internationale de l'éducation familiale, 2022/1-2 (n° 50), p.157-184 - doi : 10.3917/rief.050.0157.

Collaboration between the Animal and Human Ethology Laboratory (EthoS, CNRS/Université de Rennes/Université de Caen Basse-Normandie) and the laboratory Cognition, Health, Society (C2S, Université de Reims Champagne-Ardenne).

In partnership with the Fondation Adrienne et Pierre Sommer, the association Handi’chiens and the Fondation Mira, as well as all the families and their animals who participated in this research.