Are autistic kids good with cats?
New Study Suggests Cats May Be Good Pets for Children Diagnosed With Autism Spectrum Disorder
This exploratory study suggests emotional benefits for children include increased empathy and decreased separation anxiety.
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By Tracey L. Kelley Updated September 18, 2021
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The human-animal bond is unique to each individual and creature, so it’s challenging to generalize that people with special needs always respond favorably to a cat or a dog. Nevertheless, many researchers continue to shed positive light on how this connection is beneficial, and that’s always good news!
A new exploratory study by the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI) at the University of Missouri College for Veterinary Medicine suggests cats might help children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) improve characteristics such as empathy and separation anxiety. ASD is a brain disorder that affects communication, impulse control, and social skills. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates it affects one in every 54 children in the U.S.
Animals Help With Connection and Comfort
Gretchen Carlisle, a research scientist with ReCHAI and the author of the study, says the center’s earlier studies focused primarily on dogs as pets for children with ASD. «Parents perceived the most benefits of pets in their families when the pet was a good fit. Based on our research with dogs, we wondered if children with ASD might experience similar benefits with cats,» she told Daily Paws. This study was the first randomized controlled trial of cat adoption in families of children with ASD.
Carlisle, a former school nurse, is inspired to research connections between children with ASD and pets based on what she observed in various classrooms and the calming effects of small animals. «Children with special needs were happy to interact with the animals, and the animals provided a ‘social lubricant’ effect wherein students seemed more likely to engage in conversation around the animals,» she says. She references the work of Maggie O’Haire, head researcher at the Organization for Human-Animal Interaction Research and Education at Purdue University. «O’Haire has studied this phenomenon with guinea pigs in the classroom and found children with ASD to be more verbal with classmates in the presence of the guinea pig,» Carlisle says.
girl laying in grass with black cat
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How Cats May Be Good Companion Animals for Children Diagnosed With ASD
The purpose of the ReCHAI study was to explore shelter cat adoption by families with children of ASD. Each cat in the study was between 10 months and 4 years old and described as a domestic shorthair. Previous research studies in this area, Carlisle says, show «younger cats to be more interactive with children with ASD.»
Haylee Bergeland, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA, RBT, is the founder and executive director of the Iowa Human-Animal Bond Society and Daily Paws’ health and behavior expert. She says cats, like all companion animals, offer myriad ways in which they provide comfort and support to an individual.
«The human-animal bond isn’t exclusive to dogs. Cats and humans can have immensely complex and beneficial relationships, and some individuals are more drawn to a cat vs. other animals,» she says.
RELATED: 10 Friendly Cat Breeds That Make Perfect Pets
Bergeland says our feline friends are equipped with wonderful behaviors that aid in stress relief, comfort, and support without needing extensive training.
«So many cats are excellent companions—they offer cuddles, opportunities to play, and just a calming presence when they lie in front of a window soaking up the sun,» she says. She’s noticed in her work that some children with ASD are content to simply have their cat nearby, such as on a cat tree in their bedroom. Autism Parenting Magazine also suggests that «the introduction of a cat to children with autism creates transformations in their emotional growth.»
Carlisle and her team divided 11 families with children ages 6-14 into two groups: a treatment group that adopted a kitty right away, and a control group. Both groups were followed for 18 weeks, with parents completing surveys every 6 weeks. Then, members of the control group also adopted cats, and both groups were followed again for 18 weeks.
«After adoption of a cat, children with ASD had a significant increase in empathy and a decrease in separation anxiety. After cat adoption, children also had a significant decrease in problem behaviors such as hyperactivity and inattention,» Carlisle says.
Parents and children both reported strong bonds with their cats. More detailed findings were published by the Journal of Pediatric Nursing, concluding that «future studies with larger sample sizes are recommended.»
«Based on our earlier research, we expected children to experience some benefits after the adoption of a cat,» Carlisle says. «We thought the bond might increase over time, but parents and children rated their bonds as ‘strong’ just 2–3 days after adoption, and this stayed strong over time, so there was no increase.»
RELATED: ‘Meditating’ Sphynx Cat Comforts Children Affected by Trauma, Offers ‘a Calming Presence’
Bergeland says another reason why cats might be a rewarding experience for children diagnosed with ASD is they generally don’t jump up on people, aren’t typically loud or super vocal, and tend to be more slow and deliberate in their movements. «They can make great companions for a person who has concerns with loud noises or erratic movements, or wouldn’t enjoy the energy and often more intense needs of a dog.» It’s not that cats are better than dogs—just different, depending on the individual and the environment.
So if you think bringing a feline companion home for your child is a good idea, Bergeland offers these recommendations before adopting a cat:
- First, consult a certified animal behavior consultant not only before adding a pet but also after. «Such a professional can help the family make decisions and prepare their home in a way that ensures the pet is happy, healthy, and bonds with the family.»
- For a family with a daily schedule that varies considerably or can be stressful at times, a pet of any kind can be a challenge and may not be suitable. «However, if a family has the time to devote to a pet and wants one that doesn’t require daily long walks or extensive training, a cat may be a good option.»
- Cats require mental and physical exercise every day but they’re also just happy to lounge near you, find a warm, sunny spot to chill, and to play with toys that are easy to use (for both the person and the cat). «This can make them really well suited for a family with a child that may have been diagnosed with ASD.»
Rescue Cats Benefit, Too
Findings from an additional exploratory study released in September 2021 indicate that being companion animals is beneficial to rescue cats as well. Carlisle and her team tracked the shelter cats’ cortisol and weight levels during the primary study.
«We found the cats acclimated well to their new families and became significantly less stressed over time,» she says. «It’s crucial to look after the welfare of the cats from a humanitarian standpoint. Obviously, the shelters want to place all of their cats in homes, but some families may require a more specific fit. Using research-based, objective measurements for screening temperament may help increase the likelihood of successful, long-term matches.»
Best Cat Breeds for Autism
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) comes with many challenges, including communication issues, engaging in repetitive behaviors, or experiencing sensitivity to outside stimuli. Usually, children with autism need certain toys, such as fidget toys or weighted blankets, to relax and keep calm during stressful situations. However, there are many therapies available that you can try to minimize the symptoms and help your little one live a successful life.
This begs the question, ‘Do pets improve problematic behaviors in children with autism?’
Children who grow up with pets tend to be more caring and empathetic to other people and animals. They also tend to be more outgoing and have enhanced social and communication skills. Cats provide companionship and offer valuable life lessons for children with autism. Furthermore, it helps them learn essential skills such as taking responsibility for others, discipline, and respect.
One thing you should remember when choosing a cat is that having a pet is a big decision, especially when choosing the right breed. It’s essential to consider the breed’s personality—and spend time with the selected cat before making a choice. The wrong match can disrupt your lifestyle and make your child reluctant to get a new pet.
With so many different breeds out there, choosing the right pet might be overwhelming. This article looks at the best emotional support cats perfect for autistic children.
If you are more of a dog person, read this article: 11 Best Dog Breeds for Children with Autism.
We watch funny cat videos because they are silly and adorable. Watching them jump around can lift your spirits—so imagine what having a real cat can do. Cats are known for being ‘cold-hearted,’ but that is far from the truth. While they are fickle about choosing their humans, you will have a loyal and loving companion once you earn their trust.
Many cat breeds are great with little children—and are the perfect snuggle buddies. They are relatively low maintenance and help us relax by curling in our laps. With that being said, cats are very affectionate with their owners and people they trust; overall, they are good for our emotional well-being.
The human-animal bond is truly special, but a study revealed that cats make great companions for autistic children. Here are the three benefits of cats for children with ASD:
- Improved emotional health: Children with cats as pets experienced various emotional health improvements, such as greater empathy, less hyperactivity, and fewer feelings of separation anxiety.
- Development of a strong human-animal bond: The presence of a cat in many families is considered positive—and the bonds don’t waver over time. Children also immediately develop a bond with the cat.
- Cats are easy to take care of: Bringing a cat into the household does not burden the family. You only need to feed them, change their litter once in a while, and give them love and affection.
Are Cats Good for Children with Autism?
Cats have their individual personalities—this teaches autistic children that we are different from each other. Sometimes, children with autism struggle building friendships, so a cat will bond with the child by showing affection. It’s an important trait for many children with autism.
Research also proved that petting an animal is a stress reliever and helps reduce anxiety. It’s a massive deal for children with ASD to have their stress melt away in seconds.
How to Choose the Best Cats
The ideal cat is friendly, outgoing, and doesn’t easily get scared. It’s also a good idea to start with a young kitten, so they learn the unpredictable behavior of autistic children. You can find cats at the local shelter and meet many kittens until you find the right one.
Here are the five things you should keep in mind when choosing a kitten:
- Schedule: Cats still come with needs. You should consider the amount of attention and time you’re willing to give your cat, especially if you’re not home often.
- Environment: Cats need room to play and run, no matter their size. Make sure to have ample space for playing to accommodate the cat comfortably.
- Size: Think about whether your child can handle a medium-sized or smaller cat.
- Personality: Some cats are better around humans than others, so you might want to think about the energy and affection levels of the cat before bringing it into your home.
- Care: Consider who will take care of the cat: is it you or the child? Cats need to be brushed and groomed or litter trained.
Best Cat Breeds for Autistic Children
There are approximately 70 different breeds of cats around the world, so choosing the right cat is a hard decision to make. To make the selection process easier, here are the best cat breeds for children with ASD.
Birman is a beautiful breed that loves to give and receive affection. They make great companions since they are easy to handle and train and are playful and gentle. If you start early enough, you can walk the cat on a leash.
Since it’s a friendly cat, Birmans will greet your guests personally. However, this breed is not very active but can adapt to any environment. They aren’t demanding and enjoy being petted.
Ragdolls are patient, laid-back, and mild-mannered cats ideal for young children. The breed’s name comes from when you pick them up: the cat goes limp, like a ragdoll. They enjoy getting picked up and carried around. It’s also soft-voiced and gentle, ideal for sensory-sensitive autistic children. Ragdolls also love attention but won’t demand it.
The cats are also intelligent, not aggressive, playful, and easy to train. They quickly adapt to any environment, able to deal with a human’s routine.
This is a highly recommended breed for children with ASD. It’s a playful and loving cat that is not aggressive—and loves to be held. Maine Coons love to spend time with their humans. Maine Coons have a calm nature, yet they are outgoing, intelligent, and affectionate.
However, they might be high maintenance due to the tendency to shed, but they are warm enough to melt your heart.
Siamese cats have high levels of intelligence—and are popular among families. They might be slightly demanding of their owners, but they have an affectionate and friendly nature that makes them great companions for autistic children.
Siamese are great emotional support cats that challenge the child to move more and increase their physical activity. They like to play with the owner, so they won’t really appreciate being alone at home.
The Exotic Shorthair has the laid-back personality of a Persian but without the aloofness and grooming demands. They have flat faces and beautiful big eyes—and crave human attention. Their presence is soothing and helps the child wind down after a stressful encounter. All they require is a bit of playtime each evening.
Manx loves to play fetch. It’s a gentle and playful breed with no tail. Instead of wiggling their tails, they are quite vocal cats. Manx are loyal and crave companionship with either one member of the family or a range of people. They might require daily grooming to keep their coat in good condition.
The name comes from the Ethiopian Empire called Abyssinia. The Abyssinian is a cat with high energy levels, meaning it will not get tired from play. They love the company of others but won’t like to cuddle. They are great at sensing emotions, though, even if they are a relatively self-sufficient breed.
The Himalayan is a fine cat breed more active than a Persian and quieter than a Siamese. They have captivating blue eyes but the stunning hair of Persian cats. They seem lazy and frigid, and it might take them a while to open up, but their love is worth the wait. Himalayas are quiet and an indoor breed.
Ragamuffin cats are clingy and affectionate—and enormous! This breed loves people and is docile, friendly, and overall sweet. They do enjoy playtime. You will often find your Raggamuffin waiting for you at the door and then curl up in your lap for hours.
Burmese love to be around their humans—and will always remain playful and friendly over the years. They love to play fetch and be social, so it’s important not to leave them home alone for too long. Burmese cats might be slightly mischievous, but they will follow you around the house all day long.
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