Lots of parents have asked “should I get a pet for my child with SPD?” I am always glad when this gets asked because there is a lot at stake here. Both the child and the pet in question need a lot of consideration. Here is what I wish everyone knew before taking on a pet for their child with sensory processing disorder.
When talking about getting a pet for your child with SPD, we will break this down into three main topics: your child, choosing a pet, and their environment.
Sometimes getting a pet for a child with SPD is the most perfect fit, sometimes it is anything but. Usually it is just way more work than anyone expects. By now I am sure you know that sensory processing disorder presents in many ways. I want you to think about your child for a moment and what their tendencies are.
Let me give you an example. My child is a hyporesponder. This means it takes her more sensory input to “register” what is happening. She hugs hard, wants crazy firm tickles, and struggles with personal space. We have animals and these tendencies didn’t change just because she was holding a baby chick or a little kitten. I had to watch her so closely! It meant that a lot of the time I was hovering, instructing in how to hold and touch more gently. Sometimes I had to tell her she couldn’t touch them any more to give them a break.
Learning to handle animals with the right level of touch didn’t take 20 minutes, 2 weeks, or even 2 months. It took years. This had nothing to do with her “being mean”. She just internally couldn’t register how the touch she was giving was too much. Obviously this improved with age and increasing awareness on her part.
Can you anticipate some of the needs that you will have regarding your child and pets?
Does it seem like your child is on the move more than most? Kids with sensory processing disorder may seek out sensory input to keep them feeling good. This needs to be considered when looking at if or what type of pet may fit into your family.
Consider too if you have a hyperresponder (you can read more about these types here). This type is often referred to as an “avoider”. This may mean that your child avoids loud or sudden types of input. Bringing home a puppy who hasn’t learned not to bark, is always on the move and has sharp teeth and claws may be very off-putting for your child rather than helpful.
It is also important to think about what specifically your child would benefit from by having a pet. Do they calm out while touching something soft? Do they need that play time outside that a pet would enhance for them? Are you ready to teach some care and responsibility skills?
Just like there are many different ways to present with SPD, there are a myriad of pets to suit different needs. You should consider several different types of critters, ages, care needs and even situations to see if something may ring true for what your family needs.
Dogs and cats are the most common pets, and for good reason. I have had several parents say that their purring and cuddly cat is just the ticket to get their child with SPD to calm and regulate. Dogs can be great companions for kids with SPD. They can play fetch out in the yard and come in lay on the floor together for a break when they are done.
Maybe you want to go a little off the beaten path and opt for a rabbit, ginnea pig, lizard, bird or fish. Looking at fish in aquariums has been proven to be relaxing1. Be sure that you read up on each option. Regardless of what you are thinking of bringing home, be sure to know about the needs of that animal and how it can fit into your home and lifestyle.
Introducing an animal
I wish that everyone would be able to “trial” animals before committing to ownership. This becomes especially important when you have the extra considerations of having a child with SPD in the mix. Humane societies are such a great option for this. Many allow families to take home a pet for a 3 day trial before adopting it. Perhaps you will want to tell your family that you are “pet sitting” for the weekend. This may help avoid the crush of emotions if you decide it wasn’t a great fit for your family.
If you don’t have the option of a pet trial with a humane society, you may want to ask a breeder for a similar option. You can also test out pets as a whole by pet sitting a friend’s animal and otherwise looking for opportunities for animal exposure for your family. Volunteering with your family at a humane society may also give some great practical experience.
When you do bring a new animal home, remember there is a lot going on. Your children are excited. The pet may be excited and/or scared. Give the animal some time to adjust to their new surroundings.
Before you bring an animal home, be sure that you are already set up. Know where the animal is going to be kept, where they will do their “business” and how to keep it clean. Know and discuss with your family what their roles and responsibilities are for caring for the pet. Give the animal a safe space that it can retreat to when needed. (Your SPDer should have something similiar!) Be sure to set firm rules about how the pet can be handled and when.
Mostly, when you bring home a new animal, you need to provide a lot of supervision. You will need to be dilligently watching that the pet doesn’t hurt your child and is getting good training. Likewise, you will be training your child the appropriate way to interact with animals and care for them.
Pets can be a fun addition to families. With a little care animals make great companions to kids with sensory processing disorder. Just be sure to be ready to spend some time making things go well for your SPDer and the new pet.