Research Child Health and Development

Child Health And Development

How the Human-Animal Bond Can Help

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Research strongly indicates that individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) benefit from interaction with animals.

A girl rests near an autism therapy dog
Organizations like the North Star Foundation provide specialized therapy dogs for those with autism spectrum disorders.Photo: North Star Foundation

Improved Social Behavior and Interaction

A review of current literature on the effectiveness of animal-assisted intervention (AAI) for children with ASD found AAI to be effective in:

  • Increasing social functioning seen through
    • Increased social awareness
    • Increased social interaction
    • Decreased social isolation
    • Increased social motivation
    • Increased social skills and behaviors
  • Increasing safety, independence and socio-emotional functioning[1]

Another study found that in the presence of companion animals, children with ASD demonstrated:

  • Increased display of social behaviors including talking, making physical contact and looking at faces.
  • Improved positive social behaviors including becoming more receptive to social advances from peers.[2]


Scientific research has demonstrated the positive impact of early exposure to pets on the development of allergies and asthma later in life.

Preventing Allergies

A woman introduces several young children to a service dog
Exposure to cats and dogs at an early age has been shown to strengthen children's immune systems and help shield against asthma and eczema later in life.
  • In a study of lifetime dog and cat exposure and sensitization, teenagers who lived with a cat during the first year of their life had a 48% lower risk of cat allergy than their peers.
  • Overall, teens with an indoor cat in the first year of life had a decreased risk of being sensitized to cats.[4]

Strengthening the Immune System

  • Prenatal exposure to dogs can influence immune development and thereby attenuate the development of atopy (the genetic tendency to develop allergic diseases) in at-risk children[5]

The hygiene hypothesis states that a lack of early childhood exposure to infectious agents, symbiotic microorganisms (such as the gut flora or probiotics), and parasites increases susceptibility to allergic diseases by suppressing the natural development of the immune system.[6]

Child Development

Research is demonstrating the positive influence of pets and animal therapy on a child’s physical, social, emotional and cognitive development.

Reading & Cognition

A classroom pet has been found to be a motivating factor for children as an important mode of action in improving reading performance, and:

  • Children in studies have reported liking the animal and enjoying reading to him/her, increasing their motivation to read
  • Animals are natural incentives that encourage children to read
  • Companion animals are great listeners & help relieve stress
    • Dogs are not judgmental, they do not laugh, criticize and allow children to read at their own pace
    • Dogs can reduce stress reactions of children performing a stressful task[7]

Emotional Development & Social Skills

  • The presence of a dog in a classroom fosters development of autonomous functioning and a better segregation of self/non-self, which is the foundation of sensitivity towards the needs and moods of other people
  • Studies have found that classroom pets lead to higher social integration, fewer aggressive children[8]
  • Classroom pets also improve students’ attitudes toward school, facilitated students’ learning lessons in responsibility, respect and empathy[9]
  • Dogs aren’t the only type of effective classroom pet.
  • Guinea pigs have also been found to be a feasible, positive addition to the primary classroom to improve social functioning.[10]

"Anecdotally, we know that incorporating pets in the classroom teaches life lessons of empathy and responsibility and helps shape students’ lives for years to come. This study will further advance the scientific data behind the benefits of the program to help it expand its reach so that more and more children can experience the benefits of the human-animal bond." – Steve King, Executive Director of the Pet Care Trust and President of the Pet Industry Distributors Association



O'Haire ME. Review of current evidence and future directions in animal-assisted intervention for children with autism. OA Autism 2013 Mar 10;1(1):6.


O'Haire, Marguerite E., et al. "Social behaviors increase in children with autism in the presence of animals compared to toys." PloS one 8.2 (2013): e57010.


Berry, Alessandra, et al. "Use of assistance and therapy dogs for children with autism spectrum disorders: A critical review of the current evidence." The journal of alternative and complementary medicine 19.2 (2013): 73-80.


Wegienka, Ganesa, et al. "Lifetime dog and cat exposure and dog‐and cat‐specific sensitization at age 18 years." Clinical & Experimental Allergy 41.7 (2011): 979-986.


Effects of dog ownership and genotype on immune development and atopy in infancy. Gern, James E et al. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, Volume 113 , Issue 2 , 307 - 314


Schreiner, Pamela J. “Emerging Cardiovascular Risk Research: Impact of Pets on Cardiovascular Risk Prevention.” Current cardiovascular risk reports 10.2 (2016): 8. PMC. Web. 6 Jan. 2017.


Wohlfarth, Rainer, et al. "An investigation into the efficacy of therapy dogs on reading performance in 6–7 year old children." Hum Anim Int Bull 2 (2014): 60-73.


Hergovich, Andreas, et al. "The effects of the presence of a dog in the classroom." Anthrozoös 15.1 (2002): 37-50.


Anderson, Katherine L., and Myrna R. Olson. "The value of a dog in a classroom of children with severe emotional disorders." Anthrozoös 19.1 (2006): 35-49.


O'Haire, Marguerite E., et al. "Effects of animal-assisted activities with guinea pigs in the primary school classroom." Anthrozoös 26.3 (2013): 445-458.