Cats could be better than dogs for kids with autism

January 20, 2021

New evidence shows cats may be more therapeutic than dogs for kids with autism. (AP Photo/Chiang Ying-Ying)

Though the role of a service animal is often associated with dogs, a new study suggests that cats may provide the kind of companionship that is beneficial to children with autism in particular.

The research, published Dec. 6 in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing, highlighted how children with autism could see significant mental health benefits from their family adopting a cat. The exploratory study followed 11 families, all of which had children with autism between the ages of 6 and 14, over the course of an 18-week period. 

The families were initially divided into a control group and a treatment group, with the treatment group adopting a cat at the outset and the control group not receiving a pet. After the initial 18-week period, the control group families then also adopted a cat and were followed for another 18 weeks.

The study found that the children with autism had better social skill assessments following the introduction of the cat to their home, with their levels of cooperation and responsibility slightly improving, and empathy being a standout improvement by the end of the study. These children also demonstrated improvement with respect to problem behaviors, with bullying, hyperactivity and inattention all being reduced within just six weeks. Those children with separation anxiety also saw a noticeable improvement within the same time period. 

While there has been significant research into the role that a companion animal can play in the lives of children with autism, very little research has been conducted into what benefit a feline specifically may provide, according to Gretchen Carlisle, a research scientist at the University of Missouri Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction and an author of the study.

Carlisle had previously observed positive interactions between animals and children in special education classes during her time spent as a public school nurse, leading her to investigate the benefits of different sorts of companion animals. She noted that while mass media depictions may lead many families to believe that dogs are best suited for such work, cats may provide a unique benefit for some families.

“So many children with autism have different sensory issues, so you can see how the presence of a loud, boisterous, barking dog that gets in your face, demanding to play with you and have time with you – that can be very overwhelming for some children,” Carlisle said. “Whereas a quiet, small cat can provide some of the same companionship of the dog, but without the sensory overload.”

The researchers used two scales to measure for certain types of behavior throughout the study, including the Social Skills Improvement System Rating Scale, an instrument that assesses levels of social skills like cooperation, responsibility and empathy, as well as problem behaviors like bullying and hyperactivity, and the Screen for Child Anxiety Related Emotional Disorders, or SCARED scale, which assesses anxiety levels.

Additionally, all cats adopted were screened using the Feline Temperament Profile, a standardized test that measures the sociability, aggressiveness and flexibility of a cat’s behavior. The cats were assessed to have an overall calm temperament before being placed in homes.

Carlisle said that a past conversation with a parent indicated that despite having a cat already present in their home that their child loved, they were insistent on getting a dog as well, leading Carlisle to believe that, “Parents need more information so they can feel like they’re making the best choice for their child” when it comes to finding the right companion animal.

The key to finding the right kind of companion animal for a child with autism in particular is the lifestyle that the family tends to lead, Carlisle added. If a family tends to spend a lot of time outside and has a very active lifestyle, a dog may be the right choice, but, "If they’re a busy family where that might be a challenge, or a child with sensory issues, then a quieter animal like a cat might fit.”

“It’s really all about families thinking about what’s going to be the best match for their family,” Carlisle said.

Regardless of the age of the patient and of what kind of companion animal ends up being adopted, the benefit of having a pet can be felt, Carlisle said, as pets are all able to offer “overwhelming unconditional love and acceptance.”

“I think that’s probably part of what we’re seeing as the benefit – just [having] someone who will listen and love unconditionally,” Carlisle added.

As this was an exploratory study to assess the benefits of cat adoption, further research may be focused on expanding the sample size in order to better confirm the findings. Carlisle also said that the research team would like to explore whether the same benefits of cat adoption would hold true for children with other types of special needs outside autism.

The article, “Exploratory study of cat adoption in families of children with autism: Impact on children’s social skills and anxiety,” was published Dec. 6, 2020 in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing. It was authored by Gretchen Carlisle, Rebecca Johnson, Ze Wang, Nancy Cheak-Zamora, and Leslie Lyons, all of the University of Missouri, and Jessica Bibbo of the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging.

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