Why Children With Cerebral Palsy Benefit From Animal Assisted Therapy

There is a bond between many humans and animals that can’t be denied. Just being around a pet can make one feel better. Most animals love unconditionally and are quite patient when a person has a disability that slows him down or causes communication issues. It probably isn’t surprising, then, that animals are used in therapy to help children with disabilities.

Cerebral palsy is considered the most common disability among children, at a rate of about 500,000 kids in the United States with the disorder. Cerebral palsy is caused by damage to the brain sometime before birth or soon after. Stroke is thought to be one cause of a child developing the disorder. The term refers to disorders that impact mobility.

Hippotherapy — therapy with horses — and service dogs are often used to assist children with cerebral palsy. Any type of intelligent, trained animal can be used to assist therapists in working with children with disabilities. Children with this particular disorder benefit greatly from animal therapy.

The History of Animal-Assisted Therapy

Animal therapy started in the 1700s, with the Quakers putting their farm animals into service to help people with mental health issues learn self-control. Animals have assisted soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for physical therapy and even to help people with high blood pressure.

Over the years, animal therapy has become more common. For example, physical therapists who specialize in working with children with disabilities often utilize animals in their therapy approaches. A physical therapist might meet with a client with cerebral palsy at a local horse ranch so he can utilize the equines in the overall treatment of the child.

Animal therapy might consist of something as simple as grooming a horse. It can include service animals, such as a dog that detects a seizure coming on and can alert caregivers to get the child into a safe position before the seizure hits. There are many different ways animals can be implemented into an overall therapy plan.


Hippotherapy, or the use of horses for physical, mental and emotional therapy, has grown in popularity over the last 50 years. Children with cerebral palsy can benefit from hippotherapy in a number of ways. There is often an improvement in mobility, posture and balance. The reason is that the movement of riding a horse also engages core muscles.

In addition, as the horse walks, the child will rock slightly from being seated on the horse’s back. This is the same movement the pelvis naturally makes when walking, so muscles used to stand and walk are engaged and strengthened through horseback riding.

However, working with horses can impact more than just the physical aspects of a child’s health. Hippotherapy can also be used to improve speech and as a form of occupational therapy for special-needs children. As an added bonus, the children often see the therapy as more fun than work.

Horses are very intelligent animals, and a highly trained and gentle horse can make a connection with a child that a human therapist alone may have trouble making.

Improving Social Skills With Animal Therapy

Animals can also assist in helping children learn skills such as empathy and social interactions. Children with challenges sometimes have a hard time developing bonds with humans, but are able to learn empathy through an animal.

It is also a way that a child can work with a therapist and the therapist’s animal to learn how to express emotion in a safe way. The child is taught to read cues from the animals with the idea that she will one day be able to read human interactions better.

One issue with offering therapy learning how to interact with other humans is that the child may be resistant if he or she has had bad experiences in the past. However, the child likely hasn’t had such an experience with an animal, so animal-assisted therapy is new and the child may be less anxious.

Dogs Rule

Dogs are an excellent resource in a treatment plan for children with cerebral palsy. A study of a young child of 3 with cerebral palsy showed positive results of working with a canine. It was discovered that when the therapy dog was present, the child was more verbal. There was an increase in participation, and the child seemed to enjoy it more than therapy without the dog.

Dogs can also be put into service to watch over a child with cerebral palsy. The child may not be vocal enough to tell you when he or she is feeling poorly or a seizure or other health issue is coming on. However, a trained dog can sense when a seizure is coming and alert the parent.

Reasons to Seek Out Animal Therapy

Children with cerebral palsy often have multiple health issues, and thus require many types of care. Animal therapy is just another tool to use in your arsenal to combat this disorder. Instances of social withdrawal, agitation, depression and aggression seem to be growing when it comes to children who have mental and physical disabilities.

What animal therapy provides is not so much a new way of doing physical therapy, but of having the child interact directly with an animal rather than another human. This can motivate the child to work harder and reduce stress. Dogs can also be used for mobility assistance. A child with motor function issues may be able to hold onto a dog while walking, for example.

Animal therapy has been quite successful for many children with a variety of physical, emotional and mental disabilities. At a minimum, it is worth trying animal therapy to mix things up and get your child interacting in a new way. Even dolphins have been used for animal therapy, so there are many different ways to draw your child into this world and see what benefits him or her most.

About Jennifer Landis

Jennifer is a TiP Team author, writer, blogger, foodie, yogi, runner, and mama. She loves drinking tea, deadlifts, and dark chocolate. You can find more from Jennifer at her blog, Mindfulness Mama, or on Twitter @JenniferELandis

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