Pet Dogs Can Improve Quality of Life in Autism Families

August 24, 2016
Kristi Rosa

A follow-up study has found that owning a pet dog can both reduce stress and improve family functionality in families who have a child with autism.

Researchers at the University of Lincoln in the United Kingdom have found, in a new study funded by the US-based Human Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI) Foundation, that owning a pet dog can both reduce stress and improve family functionality in families who have a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). In addition, they also found that the families who owned a dog experienced a reduction in a number of parent-child dysfunctional interactions, according to the press release.

The study, published in the American Journal of Veterinary Behavior, is the first to explore the long-term effects of acquiring a pet dog in families who have a child with ASD. According to the study, “Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a heterogeneous condition defined by the DSM-5 as a person experiencing persistent difficulties in verbal and nonverbal interactions, which result in functional limitations (e.g., in social and educational context).” The authors of the study go on to explain that parents of children with ASD experience a reduced quality of life compared to other parents due to high levels of stress and anxiety. Previous research has suggested that improving the quality of life of the main caregiver will also work to directly benefit the child with ASD.

Daniel Mills, PhD, professor of Veterinary Behavioural Medicine in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln, led the research team. Dr. Mills said, “While there is growing evidence that animal-assisted therapy can aid in the treatment of children with autism spectrum disorders, this study is one of the first to examine how pet dog ownership can also improve the lives of those more widely affected by autism. Researchers have previously focused on the positive effects that assistance dogs can have on the child’s well-being and have passed over the impact they might also have on close relatives, but our results show that owning a pet dog (rather than a specifically trained assistance dog) can considerably improve the function of the whole family unit.”

The study followed up on a previous study that had occurred over two and a half years ago, which examined the short-term effects of families with a child of autism acquiring a pet dog. The participants were volunteers that were recruited via Dogs for the Disabled’s PAWS (Parents Autism Workshops and Support) as well as National Autistic Society advertisements. If their child was between the ages of 3 and 16 years and had a confirmed diagnosis of autism, they were asked to take part in the study. Of the 42 sets of parents that participated in the intervention group (the group who acquired a pet dog), 22 of the families chose not to participate in the follow-up study. A total of 24 sets of parents were in the control group (without a pet dog). Between the intervention and control groups, data was collected from 37 families in the follow-up study.

Even though the previous research reported that acquiring a pet dog proved beneficial on multiple fronts, the durability of the benefits remained unknown: until now. Upon following up with the families, the study showed that the benefits of acquiring a dog continued to play a role in the reduction of family difficulties as well as stress levels in the primary caregiver of the autistic child over the years.

When speaking of the implications of their findings, Dr. Mills said, “Stress associated with parenting a child with autism continued to decrease among dog owners over time, but we did not see the same reductions in families without a dog. This long-term follow up study highlights the potential benefits of pet ownership in bringing long-term improvements to the lives of families living with a child with autism.”

Although both groups (intervention group and control group) showed reductions in the amount of stress in the primary caregiver of an autistic child over time, the reduction of stress levels proved more evident in the intervention group, with 20% of the parents moving from clinically high levels of stress to normal stress levels after acquiring a pet dog. When it came to parent-child dysfunctional interactions, a reduction was only noted in the intervention group, according to the study.

When speaking further of the results, Dr. Mills said, “We found a significant, positive relationship between parenting stress of the child’s main caregiver and their attachment to the family dog. This highlights the importance of the bond between the carer and their dog in the benefits they gain.”

When speaking of the overall benefits of having a pet dog, Steven Feldman, HABRI executive director, said, “Parents of children with autism can experience increased anxiety and stress, and now we have strong scientific evidence to show that pets can have positive effects on these quality-of-life issues. Families with an autistic child could consider pet ownership as a way to improve family harmony.”