Cats may increase empathy and decrease anxiety among children with autism

January 20, 2021
dvm360 Staff

A recent study suggests that shelter cat adoption may be beneficial to both children with autism spectrum disorder and their parents.

One in 54 children in the United States is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While studies have long shown that companion animals, especially dogs, can help provide emotional and social support for these children and their families, little is known about the impact of cats on this population.

According to a new study published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing, cats may increase empathy while decreasing separation anxiety in children with ASD. These findings can potentially benefit families considering the adoption of a companion animal for their child.

“Previous research has shown parents of kids with autism are more stressed than parents of kids with any other disability,” says lead investigator and former pediatric nurse Gretchen Carlisle, in a University of Missouri press release. “If a family is considering adopting a companion animal, we want to provide the best evidence-based information possible so they can make an informed decision, and cats might be more beneficial than dogs to some families.”

To explore the impact of shelter cat adoption on children with ASD, Carlisle and her team recruited families of children with ASD between the ages of 6-14 from the MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. All families were monitored closely after adopting a cat into their home; each cat was screened for temperament to ensure they were a good fit.

According to study results, cat adoption was associated with improved empathy and reduced separation anxiety for children with ASD, along with fewer problem behaviors including externalizing, bullying and hyperactivity/Inattention. Additionally, families reported a strong bond between their child and their new cat.

“We found the main benefit of these companion animals is their unconditional acceptance,” says Carlisle. “Some children with autism may have sensory issues or be sensitive to loud noises, so a cat may be an appropriate, comforting pet for some families due to their calming presence.”