How can animal therapy help young children with mental health disorders?

April 25, 2019

According to a study by NHS Digital, one in eight young people suffer from a mental health disorder in the UK. This study also found that, in the age group 5-10, boys were almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with a disorder as girls, at 12.2% compared with 6.6%.

To combat the growing trend in mental health diagnoses, animal therapyis becoming more common as education providers look for ways to support their children through complex social and emotional developments.

Therapy animals have been used in interventions with children with autism, ADHD and ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder) and have had observable physical, social and emotional successes.

Animal therapy supporting children with autism

Although autistic children experience autism in their own ways, there are a number of common issues that present themselves in a mainstream school setting that the use of therapy animals can assist with.

One of the more common examples of Animal Assisted Therapy in primary schools is reading dogs. Nonverbal children are encouraged to read to the animal rather than the adult and are able to interact in their own time in an environment free of judgement and expectation.

The stroking of a dog or cat has also been shown to reduce levels of stress hormone cortisol and increase oxytocin. This can be helpful to autistic children experiencing sensory overload or a meltdown as a method of regulating emotions.  

Using animals to help children with ODD

Children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder struggle to build relationships with adults and struggle to conform to traditional classroom expectations. Professor Tamsin Ford, professor of child and adult psychiatry from the University of Exeter, believe that children suffering from ODD are more likely to develop other disorders in the future, such as psychosis and addiction issues.

Using animal therapy, practitioners can encourage children with ODD to form social bonds with animals and teach lessons in responsibility and emotion regulation, bypassing the need to form a bond between teacher and student.

Allowing children with ODD to have responsibility over a dog’s care will allow them to develop empathy, kindness and respect. Animals like dogs and horses are intuitive to human emotions and children must learn to understand how to display their emotions in order to safely interact with the animals.

How animal therapy helps children cope with ADHD

Children with ADHD often experience heightened levels of stress and anxiety, especially in a classroom setting. Studies have found that walking a dog is able to reduce blood pressure and that children with pet dogs have reduced levels of anxiety.

Children with ADHD who are regularly able to walk therapy dogs could benefit from these effects in schools as this would allow them to return to the classroom less stressed and anxious and more able to focus on learning.

Interaction with therapy animals has also been used to develop memory retention and problem solving skills. This could help children with ADHD academically as these skills would allow them to progress and promote good self-worth through achievement.

The oxytocin effect of interacting with animals

Interaction with animals has a natural effect on the body that combats the physiological issues that come with mental illness. In its ability to reduce cortisol and increase oxytocin, one of the most powerful social hormones we produce, animal assisted therapy could provide a significant respite for the growing number of children struggling to cope.

This article was written by Damon Culbert from Wild Science, animal assisted activity experts across the UK.


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