Pets in Child Health and Development - Child Mental Health

Key Message

WALTHAM has contributed to the understanding of a broad range of animal-assisted interventions that aim to improve aspects of child mental health and has started to gather evidence of the benefits these programs can provide to children with a range of different needs and in a variety of settings.


Therapeutic and recreational programs that include animals are often referred to generally as animal-assisted interventions (AAIs). Today, AAIs are practised with people at all stages of life and can be found in every conceivable medical or mental health care setting, as well as in schools, universities, workplaces, community centres, juvenile detention facilities and prisons.

The rationale for the creation of AAIs, or the introduction of animals into therapeutic contexts, tends to include some of the potential benefits that have been ascribed to human-animal interaction, such as reductions in stress or distress, provision of social support, increasing motivation to participate or adhere to a program, creating a sense of community, and facilitating social interactions. AAIs are also implemented in programs designed to facilitate behavioural change or assist with the acquisition of new skills.

AAIs are frequently sought out as alternative treatments for disorders and/or populations that are difficult to treat or for which empirically-supported treatments have failed or are lacking (e.g. autism spectrum disorder (ASD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and adjudicated youth).

Why WALTHAM is Interested

WALTHAM is interested in the impact of pets in people’s lives whether that be a pet living with its owner or an interaction through a therapeutic intervention or programme.

These animal assisted interventions are one way that the benefits of interaction with pets can extend beyond pet ownership. Understanding best practice and the needs of the animals as well as the people involved in such interventions are vital elements of their future success.


WALTHAM work through external collaborations to study the effects of human-animal interaction on child mental health. We have investigated  the impact of childhood pet ownership, as well as animal-assisted interventions such as therapeutic horseback riding (THR) that bring children and animals together for mutual benefit.

Insight Generation

Caring for guinea pigs in a classroom setting facilitated improvements in social functioning for children with ASD

In a collaborative study conducted with the University of Queensland, Australia, the impact on social functioning of a classroom-based AAI with guinea pigs was investigated for children with ASD and their typically-developing peers.  Participants included 192 children (64 children with ASD and 128 typically developing children), aged 5-13, from inclusive schools. In each classroom, one child with ASD and two randomly assigned typically-developing peers formed a participant group for assessment during an 8-week baseline period, followed by an 8-week AAI. During the intervention, two guinea pigs were housed in the classroom and each participant group received two 20-minute AAI sessions per week, which focused on learning to care for, interact with, and understand the physical and social needs and communication of the guinea pigs. Outcome measures included a questionnaire administered to parents and teachers, both before and after the intervention, including the Pervasive Developmental Disorder Behavior Inventory and the Social Skills Rating System. Results demonstrated significantly increased positive social behaviours, and decreased social withdrawal behaviours in children with ASD. Similar effects were seen to a lesser degree in the typically-developing children (O’Haire et al. 2010; O’Haire et al. 2012).

Therapeutic horseback riding reduced aberrant behaviors in children with ASD

An on-going four-year randomized clinical trial (RCT) conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado, US, is examining the benefits of THR for children with ASD. In the pilot study from this same research team, with 41 children diagnosed with ASD (ages 6-16) and a waitlist control group (n=16), examined a structured 10-week THR programme. During each 1-hour session of THR, participants rode their horses for a minimum of 45 minutes, and each session had both therapeutic and horsemanship goals. Instructors set individual therapeutic and horsemanship goals for each participant, which included activities and exercises that addressed physical, psychological, cognitive, and social skills. Participants in the THR programme demonstrated significant improvement compared to a 10-week wait-list control group on sub-scales of the Aberrant Behaviour Checklist - Community (ABC-C): Irritability, lethargy, stereotypic behaviour, and hyperactivity (Gabriels et al. 2012a; Gabriels et al. 2012b).

Equine-facilitated learning enhanced social competence in children

In a collaborative study conducted with Washington State University, US, a randomised controlled trial was conducted to determine the effects of an equine-facilitated learning programme. Over a period of 2 years, a total of 113 interested 5th-8th grade children participated, and were randomly assigned to an experimental or waitlist control group. The programme consisted of an 11-week session of once-weekly 90-minute lessons of individual, team, and group-focused equine-facilitated learning activities. Post-test results demonstrated a significant positive difference in social competence between the experimental and control groups. These findings are important, not only for the direct benefits of improved social competence, but because possession of strong personal and social skills have been linked to improved social and academic outcomes for youth (Pendry 2012; Pendry and Roeter 2012).


Gabriels RL, Agnew JA, Holt KD, Shoffner A, Zhaoxing P, Ruzzano S, et al. Pilot study measuring the effects of therapeutic horseback riding on school-age children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. 2012a:6:578-88.

Gabriels R, Agnew J, Pan Z. Therapeutic horseback riding in children with autism spectrum disorders. NIH/Mars-WALTHAM Research Consortium Meeting, July 9-10 2012b. Waltham-on-the-Wolds, UK.

O'Haire M, Rand J, Slaughter V, McKenzie S, Motro M, McCune S. Effects of an animal-assisted intervention for children with autism spectrum disorder and their peers in a classroom setting. 12th International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organizations (IAHAIO) Conference, July 1-4 2010. Stockholm, Sweden. [Abstract 40]

O'Haire ME, McKenzie SJ, McCune S, Slaughter V. Animal-assisted intervention for childen with autism and their peers in a classroom setting: A survey study. NIH/Mars-WALTHAM Research Consortium Meeting, July 9-10 2012. Waltham-on-the-Wolds, UK.

Pendry P. Effects of equine-facilitated learning on child social competence and HPA-axis activity. NIH/Mars-WALTHAM Research Consortium Meeting, July 9-10 2012. Waltham-on-the-Wolds, UK.

Pendry P, Roeter S. Experimental trial demonstrates positive effects of equine facilitated learning on child social competence. Journal of Human-Animal Interaction. 2012;1(1):1-19.

Further Reading

Beetz A, Kotrschal K, Turner DC, Hediger K, Uvnas-Moberg K, Julius H. The effect of a real dog, toy dog and friendly person on insecurely attached children during a stressful task: An exploratory study. Anthrozoos. 2011;24(4):349-68.

Freund LS, Brown OJ, Buff PR. Equine-assisted activities and therapy for individuals with physical and developmental disabilities: An overview of research findings and the types of research currently being conducted. In: Animals in Our Lives: Human-Animal Interaction in Family, Community, and Therapeutic Settings. Editors: McCardle P, McCune S, Griffin JA, Esposito L, Freund LS. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company. 2011:165-82.

Gee NR. Animals in the classroom. In: Animals in Our Lives: Human-Animal Interaction in Family, Community, and Therapeutic Settings. Editors: McCardle P, McCune S, Griffin JA, Esposito L, Freund LS. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company. 2011:117-37.

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