Critter Corner: Are Cats a Good Idea for Families with Children Who Have Autism? And Is It Good for the Cat?

Dear Angel,

My son has an Autism Spectrum Disorder, and we are thinking of getting a family pet. I read somewhere that adding a cat to the family might be good for a child with autism. This is making us think of adopting a cat from our local animal shelter. Do you have any information on this topic?

Schelle Tercatt

Dear Schelle,

Researchers have definitely found that adding a shelter cat to the family can help lower stress and anxiety for children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). What’s also true, according to a new study, is that joining a family with a child with ASD does wonders for the cats, too.

Gretchen Carlisle, a research scientist at the University of Missouri (MU) Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI) in the MU College of Veterinary Medicine, studies the benefits that companion animals can have for families of children with ASD. Although there is plenty of existing research emphasizing the benefits of dogs for children with autism, her newest study has found cats may help increase empathy while decreasing separation anxiety for children with ASD. The findings can have beneficial implications for families considering adopting a companion animal for their child.

Carlisle takes it one step further, studying the effects of the adoption on the shelter cats, as well. She says, “It’s not only important to examine how families of children with autism may benefit from these wonderful companion animals, but also if the relationship is stressful or burdensome for the shelter cats being adopted into a new, perhaps unpredictable environment. In our study, we found the cats acclimated well to their new families and became significantly less stressed over time.” The findings highlight the mutual benefits of human-animal interaction.

To conduct the study, Carlisle and her team monitored shelter cats for 18 weeks after being adopted by families with at least one child with ASD. The cats were first screened using the Feline Temperament Profile to identify shelter cats with a calm and laid-back temperament.

Carlisle explained that children with autism may have sensitivity or sensory issues and occasional problem behaviors accompanied by loud, sudden outbursts. Because of those concerns, the shelter cats were screened for a calm, easy-going temperament to increase the likelihood of a better long-term match for both the children and the cat.

After families selected a cat that had passed the screening, researchers made home visits to check on the cats two to three days after adoption and then every six weeks for 18 weeks, to see how they acclimated to their newly adopted families. The cats seemed well-adjusted and even gained a bit of weight initially after adoption and then maintained their weight as time went on, so both findings indicated the cats acclimated well.

Her hope is that other scientists will build on the work of her exploratory study so shelter cats and families of children with autism might benefit.

Hope you find the perfect cat for your family and that you and your new pet provide each other with lots of love and companionship.

All my best,

Angel

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About Renee Eder

Renee Eder is the Director of Public Relations for the Farr Law Firm, and gives the voice to the Critters of Critter Corner. Renee’s poodle, Penny, is an official comfort dog who she and her children bring to visit with seniors who are in the early stages of dementia at a local senior home once a month.

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