Parents of a child with autism might wonder if a pet cat would be a good fit for the family. Now, research suggests both children with autism and cats benefit when a feline joins the household.
Gretchen Carlisle, a research scientist at the Missouri University Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction, in Columbia, Mo., and her colleagues studied the pet dynamic from both sides.
"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," Carlisle said in a university news release.
"In our study, we found the cats acclimated well to their new families and became significantly less stressed over time," she said.
Carlisle's team monitored shelter cats after being adopted by families with at least one child with autism. The cats were screened using a profile to identify those with a calm temperament. The researchers made home visits to check on the cats two to three days after adoption and every six weeks for 18 weeks.
To test cats' stress, Carlisle's group looked for levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the cats' feces, and found it decreased over time, she said.
"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," Carlisle said.
Kids on the autism spectrum may have sensitivity or sensory issues and occasional problem behaviors accompanied by loud, sudden outbursts, Carlisle said. Because of those concerns, screening cats for a calm, easy-going temperament may increase the odds of a better match.
This research may help 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 noted.
"Obviously, the shelters want to place all of 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," Carlisle said. "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."
The report was published Sept. 6 in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science.
For more on autism, head to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
SOURCE: Missouri University College of Veterinary Medicine, news release, Sept. 8, 2021