How to choose the right pet for a family with special needs

Special Needs Animal Guide

Did you know that the presence of guinea pigs in a room can increase social behaviors in children with autism?

Researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia recently published a study demonstrating a significant measurable increase in talking, smiling, laughing, looking at faces, making tactile contact and social approaches when children with autism and their peers played with 2 guinea pigs in a classroom.

Playing with PetsI’ve already informally duplicated the study in my home by inviting my son’s friends to come over and play with our pet guinea pigs.  What always amazes me is that the conversation immediately turns to questions of empathy: “What are the guinea pigs thinking?  Why is he doing that?  What does he want?  How do I take care of him?”

Sooner or later, most families of children with special needs begin to think about adopting a pet for therapeutic reasons.  Of course, there are advantages and disadvantages to every type of pet.  Sometimes a pet is not logistically possible, but any pet has the potential to enrich family life.

Here are ten of the most popular pets for beginners, along with the pros and cons for each one.  If your family wants to adopt any type of pet, large or small, consider a rescue organization such as those listed on



  • Very social and trainable, and deeply attached to their human family.
  • Different breeds of dogs can serve different needs as well – for example, a Basenji is a “barkless” dog breed and an Italian Greyhound is a small, quiet companion.
  • Encourages more exercise for the whole family.
  • Many organizations such as Disability Assistance Dogs  and Autism Service Dogs of America  can match families with a trained service dog – but a service dog is a working dog, not a pet.


  • Expensive care.
  • Large time commitment.
  • Many people are allergic to dog fur and dander.
  • Most dog food contains food allergens such as peanuts, eggs and dairy, so individuals with food allergies will have a reaction from being licked by a dog, or even from touching dog fur – because the fur is coated with saliva and food residue.
  • Most dogs do not like to be disturbed while eating and may interpret young children’s movements as threatening, so give some consideration to the behavior patterns in your home before adopting.



  • Cats tend to choose their families: 49 percent of pet cats are acquired as strays.
  • Cats become attached to their families and enjoy companionship.
  • Quiet.
  • Relatively easy to clean up after them.


  • Cats spend about 70% of the day sleeping and 15% of the day grooming – they are not nearly as playful as dogs.
  • Almost all cat food is made with peanuts, so cat fur is coated with saliva and peanut residue – cats can be very dangerous for people with peanut allergies.
  • Cat dander is another major allergen.



  • Soothing to watch and pet.
  • Easy to clean up after them.
  • Live up to 10 years.
  • Rabbits are social and prefer to have another rabbit as a companion.
  • Rabbits tend to be relatively low maintenance animals,  so their care is not too time-consuming.


  • Many people are allergic to rabbits.
  • Rabbits are not easily trained, but with time can be trained to use a litterbox.
  • They chew on everything.
  • Do not enjoy snuggling or being picked up.

Guinea Pig 


  • Guinea pigs are social and are much happier living with another guinea pig.  Ask at the rescue shelter for a bonded pair.
  • Furry and snuggly.
  • Lower time commitment compared to cats or dogs.
  • Communicative – guinea pigs squeak and make other sounds to express their feelings.


  • Daily cage cleaning.
  • Nail trimming is necessary and very challenging.
  • Sometimes that squeaking gets annoying.
  • Guinea pigs need space to move around – they should not be confined to the cage all day.



  • Super fun to watch!
  • Cage only needs to be cleaned once every two weeks.
  • Inexpensive, easy care.


  • Not as social as guinea pigs.
  • May bite.
  • Short life span -usually about 2 years.
  • Nocturnal – will move around and make noise at night.



  • Even more social and engaging than dogs.  I almost got one for my son because the rat drew out and challenged all of my son’s social skills in less than 3 minutes.
  • Affectionate and deeply attached to people.
  • Fun loving, curious and playful.  Get two rats together and they will work very hard to entertain you.
  • Intelligent and trainable.


  • Many people have a serious fear of rats.
  • Rats love to stay with their owner for several hours per day, riding around on the person’s shoulder.  They require a large commitment of time and attention or else they become depressed and ill.
  • Rat droppings around the house.
  • 2 year life span.

Parakeet (Budgie) 


  • Bright, beautiful and social – much happier in pairs.
  • Trainable.
  • Great for people who live in a smaller home.


  • The noise is a deal-breaker for those with difficulties with sensory integration.
  • High upfront cost of cage and equipment.
  • Daily cage cleaning.
  • No snuggling, and biting is a risk.
  • Bird droppings around the house if allowed to fly freely.

Leopard Gecko 


  • Less expensive and easier to care for than other reptiles.
  • Over time they become used to handling by owner.
  • Remains small – maximum size is 8 inches long.
  • Good for small living space.
  • Ideal for people with fur allergies.
  • Lives about 20 years.
  • Quiet.
  • Clean – uses one corner of cage as a bathroom.


  • May carry salmonella bacteria – take precautions.
  • Sensitive to temperature changes.
  • High upfront cost for tank, heat lamp, materials to create a home environment, etc.
  • No snuggling.

Slider Turtle 


  • No allergies.
  • Low veterinary expenses.
  • Quiet.
  • Inexpensive to feed.
  • Lives for about 20 years – some Sliders live up to 70 years.


  • Illegal to own Sliders in some states.
  • May carry salmonella bacteria – take precautions.
  • Frequent tank cleaning.
  • Not snuggly.
  • Unique “turtle” odors.
  • High upfront cost for wet/dry habitat, tank, heat lamp, etc.
  • Grows up to 10-11 inches in length and will need a larger tank.



  • Beautiful colors.
  • No allergies.
  • Instantly calming to watch – perfect for those struggling with anxiety or panic attacks.
  • Great for small living space.


  • Tank cleaning/maintenance.
  • Short life span.
  • High start-up cost and learning curve.
  • May be unsafe around child with hyperactivity or destructive behaviors.
  • Not snuggly.

What do you love most about your pet?  How has your pet helped your family?  Or is your favorite pet not on this list?  Please share in the comments below!

Karen Wang

Written on 2013/05/09 by:

Karen Wang

Karen Wang is a Friendship Circle parent. You may have seen her sneaking into the volunteer lounge for ice cream or being pushed into the cheese pit by laughing children. She is a contributing author to the anthology "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities"
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  • Linda Quirk

    We adopted a 7 yr old Golden Retriever. We have 3 special needs children, 1 with a behavior problem, and our GR is so mellow, she’s the perfect dog for us!

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  • Jeff Lee

    Nice post!!! Keeping pets at home develops social behavior in children, They learn how to take care of pets and automatically things. I have 2 rabbits at my home, they are quiet creatures and I really love them.
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  • Caz

    I have an autistic child, the first dog we rescued and it didn’t work out not a good breed won’t tolerate being hounded, so we tried again and got a cocker spaniel she is a fantastic pet and has given my daughter much needed love and cuddles when I haven’t been able to do so, we use her in home education projects and my daughter is more confident with other dogs now as she was very scared of them before, I would definitely advise this breed as a first pet and a pet for sen, our dog puts up with a lot and as they have been bread to have soft mouths they don’t do any damage to people or furniture, xx good luck

  • Margot Fox-Slater

    Found this page to be truly informational and helpful. I had
    no idea rats were a loyal pet! I found it engaging, easy to read and gave lots
    of options to consider when choosing a pet. Even if you have no idea on what
    pet to pick, this article really demonstrates it has a great knowledge on which pet suits a family. Thanks for the interesting read!

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