April 16, 2018

How Cats Can Help Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder

For children with autism spectrum disorder, having a loving and affectionate pet cat can provide social and emotional benefits.
By JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM
Cats can be aloof. However, results of a study recently published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science demonstrated that cats are affectionate with children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), benefitting the children and their families.

Pets, particularly service dogs, reportedly help children with ASD (eg, by providing calm and protection). Interestingly, some studies have suggested that cats may be preferable for some children with ASD, in part because a child may be more compatible with a cat than a dog. Little is currently known, though, about how cats benefit children with special needs.

Parents of children with ASD can experience isolation and stigma. Using data collected from such parents, this study’s research team concluded that “the positive interactions of cats with [children with ASD] revealed that cats can provide an avenue of positive relationships.”

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The researchers conducted a 2-phase study in which parents of children with ASD categorized behaviors of the family cat (affection, aggression) and child (response to cat, such as indifference) and commented on their child’s interactions with the family cat.
 

Phase 1: Web Survey

Parents (n=64) of a child with ASD aged 3 to 12 years and an adult cat completed a web-based survey covering the following categories:
  • Sociodemographics
  • Cat’s behavior
  • Child’s behavior
  • Child-cat interactions

The children with ASD were typically boys, aged 6 to 9 years, and lived in multipet households. About 50% of the cats were domestic shorthairs and 42% each were neutered males or spayed females.

Most cats were at least somewhat affectionate and displayed little to no aggression toward the child with ASD. Surprisingly, the cats that were very affectionate with the child were less so toward other adults and children in the household, suggesting the cats’ preference toward the child with ASD.

Over half of the children with ASD enjoyed cuddling or holding their cats but spent only about 1 to 2 hours/day with them.

Statistical analysis revealed the highest-quality interactions were with cats adopted as ferals or from breeders, particularly as young cats or kittens, suggesting that a calm kitten adopted at weaning could be ideal for a child with ASD.
 

Phase 2: Telephone Interview

The researchers interviewed 44 parents of children with severe ASD, mild ASD, or typical development; the questions were similar to those of the web-based survey.

Most households had multiple children and cats. As with phase 1, most cats were never aggressive toward the child with ASD; for cats that were aggressive, the aggressiveneses level did not vary according to ASD type. Across ASD types, most cats were at least moderately affectionate with the child with ASD yet were more likely to be very affectionate with children with typical development than those with mild or severe ASD.

The children enjoyed holding their cats yet spent little time with them.
 

Parent Comments

Parents left many comments, including:
  • “Child loves the cat.”
  • “Cat is a lover, not a fighter, very tolerant.”
  • “My son just likes to look at the cats and talk to them.”

When comparing the 2 phases, the researchers determined that a cat’s gender and neuter status did not affect its affection or aggression.
 

Study Implications

The study’s findings highlight the importance of finding a cat with ideal traits for a child with ASD: affectionate, socially outgoing, and low aggression. Although future studies will be needed to further explore interactions between cats and children with ASD, the researchers concluded that “cats likely to be affectionate may provide rewarding relationships for children with ASD.”

 
Dr. JoAnna Pendergrass received her DVM degree from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Following veterinary school, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Dr. Pendergrass is the founder and owner of JPen Communications, a medical communications company.

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