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This exploratory study suggests emotional benefits for children include increased empathy and decreased separation anxiety.

By Tracey L. Kelley
March 07, 2021
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The human-animal bond is unique to each individual and creature, so it's challenging to generalize that people with special needs always respond favorably to a cat or a dog. Nevertheless, many researchers continue to shed positive light on how this connection is beneficial, and that's always good news! 

A new exploratory study by the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI) at the University of Missouri College for Veterinary Medicine suggests cats might help children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) improve characteristics such as empathy and separation anxiety. ASD is a brain disorder that affects communication, impulse control, and social skills. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates it affects one in every 54 children in the U.S. 

Gretchen Carlisle, a research scientist with ReCHAI and the author of the study, says the center's earlier studies focused primarily on dogs as pets for children with ASD. "Parents perceived the most benefits of pets in their families when the pet was a good fit. Based on our research with dogs, we wondered if children with ASD might experience similar benefits with cats," she told Daily Paws. This study was the first randomized controlled trial of cat adoption in families of children with ASD.

Carlisle, a former school nurse, is inspired to research connections between children with ASD and pets based on what she observed in various classrooms and the calming effects of small animals. "Children with special needs were happy to interact with the animals, and the animals provided a 'social lubricant' effect wherein students seemed more likely to engage in conversation around the animals," she says. She references the work of Maggie O'Haire, head researcher at the Organization for Human-Animal Interaction Research and Education at Purdue University. "O'Haire has studied this phenomenon with guinea pigs in the classroom and found children with ASD to be more verbal with classmates in the presence of the guinea pig," Carlisle says.

girl laying in grass with black cat
Credit: mage Source / Getty

How Cats May Be Good Companion Animals for Children Diagnosed With ASD

The purpose of the ReCHAI study was to explore shelter cat adoption by families with children of ASD. Each cat in the study was between 10 months and 4 years old and described as a domestic shorthair. Previous research studies in this area, Carlisle says, show "younger cats to be more interactive with children with ASD."  

Haylee Bergeland, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA, RBT, is the founder and executive director of the Iowa Human-Animal Bond Society and Daily Paws' health and behavior expert. She says cats, like all companion animals, offer myriad ways in which they provide comfort and support to an individual. 

"The human-animal bond isn't exclusive to dogs. Cats and humans can have immensely complex and beneficial relationships, and some individuals are more drawn to a cat vs. other animals," she says. 

Bergeland says our feline friends are equipped with wonderful behaviors that aid in stress relief, comfort, and support without needing extensive training.

"So many cats are excellent companions—they offer cuddles, opportunities to play, and just a calming presence when they lie in front of a window soaking up the sun," she says. She's noticed in her work that some children with ASD are content to simply have their cat nearby, such as on a cat tree in their bedroom. Autism Parenting Magazine also suggests that "the introduction of a cat to children with autism creates transformations in their emotional growth."

Carlisle and her team divided 11 families with children ages 6-14 into two groups: a treatment group that adopted a kitty right away, and a control group. Both groups were followed for 18 weeks, with parents completing surveys every 6 weeks. Then, members of the control group also adopted cats, and both groups were followed again for 18 weeks.

"After adoption of a cat, children with ASD had a significant increase in empathy and a decrease in separation anxiety. After cat adoption, children also had a significant decrease in problem behaviors such as hyperactivity and inattention," Carlisle says.

Parents and children both reported strong bonds with their cats. More detailed findings were published by the Journal of Pediatric Nursing, concluding that "future studies with larger sample sizes are recommended."

"Based on our earlier research, we expected children to experience some benefits after the adoption of a cat," Carlisle says. "We thought the bond might increase over time, but parents and children rated their bonds as 'strong' just 2–3 days after adoption, and this stayed strong over time, so there was no increase."

Bergeland says another reason why cats might be a rewarding experience for children diagnosed with ASD is they generally don't jump up on people, aren't typically loud or super vocal, and tend to be more slow and deliberate in their movements. "They can make great companions for a person who has concerns with loud noises or erratic movements, or wouldn't enjoy the energy and often more intense needs of a dog." It's not that cats are better than dogs—just different, depending on the individual and the environment. 

So if you think bringing a feline companion home for your child is a good idea, Bergeland offers these recommendations before adopting a cat:

  • First, consult a certified animal behavior consultant not only before adding a pet but also after. “Such a professional can help the family make decisions and prepare their home in a way that ensures the pet is happy, healthy, and bonds with the family.”
  • For a family with a daily schedule that varies considerably or can be stressful at times, a pet of any kind can be a challenge and may not be suitable. “However, if a family has the time to devote to a pet and wants one that doesn’t require daily long walks or extensive training, a cat may be a good option.”
  • Cats require mental and physical exercise every day but they’re also just happy to lounge near you, find a warm, sunny spot to chill, and to play with toys that are easy to use (for both the person and the cat). “This can make them really well suited for a family with a child that may have been diagnosed with ASD.”