Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may experience increases in empathy and decreases in problem behaviors after adoption of a shelter cat into their families, according to a new study.
Titled "Exploratory study of cat adoption in families of children with autism: Impact on children's social skills and anxiety," the study was published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing.
It was announced by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI).
"Our study found that children with ASD experienced significant increases in the social skill of empathy, significant decreases in problem behaviors including bullying and hyperactivity/inattention, and also less separation anxiety after the introduction of a shelter cat," said Gretchen Carlisle, PhD, MEd, RN, research scientist at the University of Missouri Research Center for Human Animal Interaction (ReCHAI).
"Previous research has focused on interactions of dogs with children who have ASD, but dogs may not provide the best fit for all children and their families, especially given the hypersensitivities to sound that are common among children with ASD," Carlisle said.
"We hope the results of this study will help encourage more families to consider the possibility of cat ownership and help more shelter cats find loving, deserving homes."
"For the first time, we have scientific research that shows how beneficial cats can be for families of children with ASD," said Steven Feldman, president of HABRI, the primary funder of the study.
"Selecting a suitable family pet is an important decision. Families with a child with ASD now have more information and more choices, and we hope that this will also help more shelter cats find good homes."
Findings of the Feline Friends study, led by researchers at the University of Missouri, demonstrated that children with an adopted shelter cat had better empathy and less separation anxiety, as well as fewer problem behaviors exhibited by less externalizing, bullying and hyperactivity/inattention.
Children and parents also felt strong bonds with their new cat almost immediately after adoption and despite the responsibilities involved in care for a cat, these bonds did not decrease over time.
The researchers conclude that shelter cats may be beneficial for some children with ASD while not necessarily creating a burden for their parents.
In addition to HABRI, the Feline Friends Study was funded by the Winn Feline Foundation. Read the full paper in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pedn.2020.11.011
HABRI is a not-for-profit organization that maintains the world's largest online library of human-animal bond research and information; funds innovative research projects to scientifically document the health benefits of companion animals; and informs the public about human-animal bond research and the beneficial role of companion animals in society. For more information, please visit http://www.habri.org.