Having a family pet has been found to relieve consumers’ stress both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, a new study conducted by researchers from the University of Missouri-Columbia has found that having a pet cat can be particularly beneficial for kids with autism.
According to their findings, having a cat can help kids with autism improve their anxiety-related symptoms and develop stronger empathy skills.
“We found the main benefit of these companion animals is their unconditional acceptance,” said researcher Gretchen 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.”
Cats can improve anxiety
To see how cats can benefit kids with autism, the researchers had families with kids between the ages of six and 14 adopt a cat. Prior to taking the cats home, all of the animals were evaluated to ensure that they had a calm demeanor. For 18 weeks, the researchers evaluated the families’ progress with the cats at home, and parents completed surveys about how their kids interacted with the cats and how their overall mental well-being was affected by having a pet in the house.
The researchers found that the cats provided several benefits for the kids and their families -- not least of which was an immediate bond between the kids and their new pets. The parents reported that their kids were not only experiencing less severe separation anxiety, but they also were less angry and had better focus and attention. Additionally, having a cat at home helped the kids develop stronger empathy skills and improve their overall well-being.
Carlisle noted that a lot of research focuses on how having a dog in the house can benefit kids with autism. While she agrees that a pet can be a great form of stress relief, she says these findings should help encourage more families to consider adopting a cat.
“Previous research has shown parents of kids with autism are more stressed than parents of kids with any other disability,” Carlisle said. “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 to some families than dogs.”
The researchers hope that families with kids with autism utilize these findings because they emphasize the countless ways that having a pet can help reduce stress and anxiety for the whole family.
“As a former pediatric nurse, I have always strived to help children, and one thing I learned is that you need to involve the parents so they can make informed choices for their children,” said Carlisle. “I see pets as a way to enhance wellness, and it feels gratifying to provide assistance to families that have a lot on their plate.”