For children who suffer from disabilities or life-threatening illnesses, the joy that service or therapy animals can bring to their lives is immeasurable, and some are able to find brief moments of joy from equipment designed especially for them.
The death of comforting pets is sometimes so overwhelming to the children that their own healing stalls. And the destruction or loss of therapy equipment can rob special needs kids of one of their few outlets of pure, childlike happiness.
When pets' deaths are caused by violent attacks by people or other animals, the loss is that much more complicated and painful.
"Any pet loss has a major impact on a child, as well as on a family," Irene Deitch, professor emeritus of psychology at City University of New York, told ABCNEWS.com. "We might find the bonding is so intense that the child will show a decrement— a decrease in cognitive functioning — without [a pet] to talk to, to touch or be a source of affection."
A therapy animal "is a love object," said Deitch, who counsels patients about pet loss. "It's total care and love and acceptance and affection. And when we lose a love object, we have great grief and we mourn."
The following stories chronicle several children who have had to deal with the loss of therapeutic toys or equipment, or the disappearance or injury of their very best friends — their service pets.
Micah DeSplinter and Two Special Needs Swings
For the second time in three months, the specially made swing of a 5-year-old boy with cerebral palsy has been stolen from the backyard of his Colorado home.
"You've got to be kidding me," was the initial reaction from his mother, Cindy DeSplinter. "The police have a feeling it might be kids in the neighborhood. Like they saw it up again and it was kind of a challenge to steal it again."
Micah DeSplinter is the third child of Cindy and her husband, a carpenter, but the first to live a full year. The couple had one child that was stillborn, and a second was born prematurely and died at 4 months.
"Micah," she said, pausing, "is pretty special to us."
A Medicaid program paid about $500 for the first swing for Micah, she said. But in July, someone stole that swing.
"I really don't think there's a market for it. This is not a marketable item."
"And especially when you have a family that needs it," DeSplinter said.
After the first theft, DeSplinter agreed to an interview with a television station, hoping a neighbor would recognize the swing and call police.
"We hoped someone would see it and recognize it and say, 'Hey, what is that person doing with a special needs swing?' 'Cause it's not an easily hideable item."
Though the swing was not found, reaction to the story was swift.
A hardware store chain came to the house and built fencing between the family's yard and a park. In a nearby town, a family that heard about the theft paid for a replacement, choosing to remain anonymous, DeSplinter said.
Then earlier this month, the DeSplinters woke up to find the new swing missing.
"I just don't understand why," she said. "Why us? We haven't done anything to anyone. Not even 'us,'" she said, correcting herself. "This is a 5-year-old boy. Nobody should have anything against a 5-year-old boy, whether they have disabilities or not."
So far, police have not made an arrest.
DeSplinter said she doesn't know whether or not Micah understands that his swing has been stolen twice.