Cats, children with ASD both benefit from friendship, study shows

HABRI-funded research says shelter cats adopted by children with autism spectrum disorder showed decreased stress

Cats befriended by children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) get as much out of the relationship as their human companions. Photo ©BigStockPhoto.comCats befriended by children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) get as much out of the relationship as their human companions.

This is according to a newly conducted study, funded by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) and the EveryCat Health Foundation. The research, which was led by a team from the University of Missouri (MU), built on previously published findings that explored the emotional, behavioural, and social benefits of shelter cats on families of children with ASD. The new study focuses on the feline experience of these adoptions.

“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 and perhaps unpredictable environment,” says Gretchen Carlisle, PhD, MEd, RN, research scientist at the University of Missouri Research Center for Human Animal Interaction (ReCHAI). “In our study, we found the cats acclimated well to their new families and became significantly less stressed over time.”

The study worked with shelter cats identified as having a laid-back disposition per the Feline Temperament Profile. The cats were monitored for a period of 18 weeks after being adopted by a family with at least one child with ASD.

Researchers made home visits to check on the cats two to three days after placement to see how the animals acclimated to their newly adopted families, then every six weeks for 18 weeks.

“Cortisol is a stress measure we tracked through collecting samples of the cats’ feces, and we noticed a significant decrease in cortisol over time,” Dr. Carlisle says. “Cats also tend to lose weight due to not eating if they are stressed, but we found the cats actually 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.”

Children with ASD may have sensitivity or sensory issues, as well as occasional behaviours accompanied by loud, sudden outbursts, Carlisle says. For this reason, shelter cats screened as having a calm temperament may increase the likelihood of a better long-term match for both the children and the cat.

“It’s crucial to look after the welfare of the cats from a humanitarian standpoint, and this research also helps animal shelter staff overcome the financial and management hurdles that can result when cats are returned to shelters if there is not a good fit with the adopted family,” she says. “Obviously, the shelters want to place all their cats in homes, but some families may require a more specific fit, and using research-based, objective measurements for screening temperament may help increase the likelihood of successful, long-term matches.”

“Our hope is that other scientists will build on the work of our exploratory study so shelter cats and families of children with autism might benefit,” Carlisle adds.

The study, titled, “Exploratory study of fecal cortisol, weight, and behavior as measures of stress and welfare in shelter cats during assimilation into families of children with autism spectrum disorder,” has been published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science.

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