Adopting a Pet During a Pandemic

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused; COVID-19 Topics

By Jenna Garvey, M.Ed., LABA, BCBA

[Published in the West Springfield Republican on February 18, 2021, and in the Stoughton Journal Sun on March 21, 2021 .]

Thanks to COVID-19, the number of families seeking to adopt dogs and cats has increased dramatically over the past year. Many of us have been spending more time at home, feeling isolated, depressed, and stressed, so it may seem that welcoming a new pet into the family is the perfect solution to our current situation.

However, adopting a pet is a major decision under any circumstances. How can you determine if now is the right time to bring a dog or a cat (or another animal) into your home? If you have a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), how can you best support him (or her) throughout this process? Taking some time to consider your family’s needs and resources is an excellent place to start.  
Children approach animals with varying degrees of enthusiasm – some gravitate towards them, while others are more cautious or even scared of some animals. Children with ASD are no different in this regard. It is not uncommon for some to have an aversion to certain pets due to sensory issues or previous learning experiences with an animal that acted unpredictably.

Consider where your child falls on this spectrum, and choose an animal or breed that will be a good match given his preferences. If he finds loud noise aversive or cannot tolerate a quick, unexpected approach, perhaps an older pet or slower breed might be a good fit. Pet rescues will often provide in-depth information about an animal’s disposition, which can be extremely helpful in finding a good match.

If possible, arrange a visit with the prospective pet to see how your child responds. Consider what supports he will need to have a positive experience. Prior to the visit, you might use a social story or visual aids to help him understand what will happen during the visit and how to interact safely with the animal. Help him identify what an animal’s body language might communicate (for example, if the pet is welcoming of attention or might need space).

Pay close attention to how your child responds toward the animal. Is he welcoming of animal attention or does he seem scared or resistant? This should give you a good indication of how he might respond in your home. If your child displays excessive resistance, it may be advisable to hold off adopting a pet.
If you decide that now is a good time to adopt, plan to pair initial interactions between your child and the new pet at home with some of his favorite things. Provide him with reinforcement, or rewards, for acting in a kind and gentle manner toward the pet. Initially, supervise all contact to ensure safety until you’re confident your child and the pet are comfortable in each other’s company.

Teach him to request a “break” or “space,” and have a plan for how to manage this in your home by designating a “safety zone.” By quickly and consistently reinforcing his request for a break, you will help your child to build trust and boundaries regarding the pet. This can help him learn to avoid acting out in order to terminate unfavorable interactions with the pet in the future.

At the same time, consider the amount of training the pet might need to be successful in his or her new home. At minimum, plan to provide treats when the animal engages in positive behavior. Formal pet training may be a great option to promote safety and increase the animal’s awareness of basic commands.  
After reading these tips, you may decide that now is a great time to move forward with exploring pet adoption. On the other hand, if your child is experiencing behavioral challenges due to a disrupted school schedule or less access to social activities, tread carefully before adding a pet to the mix.

We are all managing the complexities this pandemic has brought to everyday life, and it may be best to wait until things are more consistent for your child. We all have a finite amount of financial and emotional resources, so make sure your decision to adopt will have a positive net impact on your entire family’s emotional wellbeing. 

Jenna Garvey, M.Ed., LABA, BCBA, is Clinical Director at the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in Chicopee, Mass. She can be contacted at

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 65 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with ASD and other developmental disabilities.  For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit