A new study published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing found that children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) experienced significant increases in the social skill of empathy, significant decreases in problem behaviours including bullying and hyperactivity/inattention, and also less separation anxiety after the introduction of a shelter cat.
Gretchen Carlisle, PhD, MEd, RN, research scientist at the University of Missouri Research Center for Human Animal Interaction (ReCHAI) said: "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."
The researches hope the results of this study will encourage more families to consider the possibility of cat ownership and help more shelter cats find 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 externalising, bullying and hyperactivity/inattention.
"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 Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI).
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.
Participating families of children were randomised into two groups. Families in one group adopted a shelter cat immediately and were followed for 18 weeks. Other families were in a control group for 18 weeks with no cat and then adopted a shelter cat and were followed for an additional 18 weeks.
Surveys were collected every six weeks, measuring children's social skills and anxiety and parent/child bonds with their cat. Shelter cats available for adoption in the study were all required to pass the Feline Temperament Profile with a score of greater than or equal to 20, identifying them as having a calm temperament.
"In the families of children with ASD who adopted temperament-screened shelter cats in this study, parents and children bonded with their new cats," said Dr Vicki Thayer, Interim Executive Director of the Winn Feline Foundation. "We hope other scientists will further study cat adoption in families of children with ASD, following this important exploratory study."
• The Feline Friends Study was funded by HABRI and the Winn Feline Foundation.
• To read the full paper: Journal of Pediatric Nursing
HABRI is a not-for-profit organisation 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: HABRI
About Winn Feline Foundation
Winn Feline Foundation is a non-profit organisation established in 1968 that supports studies to improve cat health. Since 1968, the Winn Feline Foundation has funded more than US$7.6 million in health research for cats at more than 30 partner institutions worldwide.
• For further information: Winn Feline Foundation