A study published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing suggests that cats make valuable companions for children with autism spectrum disorder. The study found that children with autism showed greater empathy, less separation anxiety, and fewer problem behaviors after a cat was introduced into their family.
Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) present with communication difficulties, behavioral challenges, and often suffer from heightened anxiety. While many treatments exist that address these symptoms, research suggests that youth with ASD regularly experience isolation and their families face heightened stress.
One practice that has proven itself effective in improving the lives of children with ASD and their families is the introduction of a companion animal. While most studies have focused on dogs as companion pets, Gretchen K. Carlisle of the University of Missouri Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction and her team say that cats may offer their own unique benefits. Since cats are generally calmer animals than dogs and since they require less looking after, these animals may be less taxing for children with ASD and their families.
Faced with a lack of research in this area, Carlisle and her colleagues conducted an experimental study to see whether children with ASD would effectively bond with pet cats adopted into their families. The researchers also examined whether the children would show improvements in social skills and anxiety after the cat adoption.
A small sample of 15 children with ASD and their families were randomly assigned to either adopt a shelter cat (treatment group) or to be waitlisted to adopt a cat 18 weeks later (control group). Both groups were studied and, following the 18 weeks, families in the control group then adopted a cat and became a second treatment group. Due to study dropout, 10 families in total adopted cats. The children were between the ages of 6-14 and the cats were screened for a docile temperament.
Throughout the study, each child’s primary caregiver completed assessments of the child’s social skills and anxiety — at weeks 6, 12, and 18. The treatment group completed additional assessments of attachment to the pet for both the parent and child — 2-3 days into the pet adoption and at weeks 6, 12, and 18.
Of the 10 families who adopted cats, two families gave up the cats — one did so because the child was reportedly not bonding with the cat, and the other did so because the parent did not like the cat’s behavior.
However, among the rest of the sample, both the children and their primary caregivers reported strong bonding with the cats 2-3 days into the adoption. This attachment to the pets remained high throughout the study.
Moreover, the children’s social skills improved. By week 12 after adopting the cat, the children showed increased empathy. By week 6, they showed reduced bullying behavior, reduced hyperactivity and inattention, and lower separation anxiety.
“If parents of children with ASD are considering acquiring a pet, it would be best to consider the needs/desires of their child and their family rather than just defaulting to a dog because they have heard a lot about dogs for children with ASD on social media,” Carlisle tells PsyPost.
Externalizing behaviors like aggression and outbursts of anger are more frequent among children with ASD and can add stress to the family unit. The cats appeared to help the children regulate these problem behaviors, as evidence by the children’s reduced bullying behavior. The researchers point out that the cats also appeared to have a calming effect on the children, reducing their levels of hyperactivity. Moreover, although children with ASD often feel overwhelmed by changes in their environment, the findings showed that introducing a cat in the home actually reduced the children’s anxiety and had an overall positive effect on the family unit.
Overall, Carlisle and her team say that their study offers evidence that cats can be positive companion animals for children with ASD, although future studies should attempt to replicate their findings among a larger sample. The authors emphasize that families of children with ASD should be assisted in choosing a cat with a calm demeanor and should be properly informed concerning the caretaking involved with cat ownership and the potential adjustment period for both the pet and family.
“This study had a small sample, so a larger study would be helpful to confirm our findings. In addition to this, it will be helpful to explore other pets such as guinea pigs or rabbits,” Carlisle adds.
The study, “Exploratory study of cat adoption in families of children with autism: Impact on children’s social skills and anxiety”, was authored by Gretchen K. Carlisle, Rebecca A. Johnson, Ze Wang, Jessica Bibbo, Nancy Cheak-Zamora, and Leslie A. Lyons.