It’s known that companion animals can benefit families with kids who have autism, but is the relationship mutually beneficial to the companion animal?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 54 children are diagnosed with autism before the age of 8. With an estimated 25.4% of households owning a cat, many of them are exposed to ASD.
Children with autism may experience sensitivity or sensory issues and have behavioral problems, including occasional loud outbursts. Because of the unpredictable nature of an environment like that, researchers wanted to explore how living with children who have autism impacts companion cats. Is it good for just the kids, or for the cats, too?
The results are in!
According to a study published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science, cats living in a home with a child who has autism are less stressed than when living in a shelter.
According to a press release from the university, Gretchen Carlisle, a research scientist at the MU Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction, worked with a team to follow shelter cats after they were adopted into Missouri families of children with autism to track their stress levels.
Carlisle said, “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, perhaps unpredictable environment.”
The cats were screened to ensure they were calm and laid-back, and adoptive families were screened to ensure there hadn’t been previous aggressive behavior towards animals in the home. After that, researchers followed adopted cats for 18 weeks, measuring the cortisol levels in their feces every 6 weeks.
What they found is that the cats’ cortisol levels continued to go down over time, indicating their stress levels were decreasing over time.
“Cortisol is a stress measure we tracked through collecting samples of the cats’ feces, and we noticed a significant decrease in cortisol over time,” Carlisle said.
She added that cats who are stressed also tend to lose weight, and the cats they followed either maintained or gained weight. Their weight, paired with the decreased cortisol levels, are both indicators that the cats adjusted well to life with their new families.
In the press release, Carlisle said that the study was important because it takes the cats’ welfare into account from a humanitarian standpoint. She added, “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.”
The study only explored how cats’ stress decreased after moving from a shelter setting to a home of children who have ASD and didn’t factor in a control group to see if cats are less stressed in homes without kids who have ASD. Either way, the early research is helpful for cat placements from shelters.
The study concluded, saying, “This study provides preliminary evidence for the success of cat adoption by families of children with ASD, when cats have been temperament screened and cat behavior educational information is provided. Further research is warranted to confirm these findings.”Whizzco