Purpose: The diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) occurs in one in 54 children and companion animals (CA) are common in families of children with ASD. Despite evidence of CA ownership benefits for children with ASD, little is known about cats. The purpose was to explore the impact of shelter cat adoption by families of children with ASD.
Design and methods: This was the first randomized controlled trial of adoption of a temperament screened cat by families of children with ASD. Families assigned to the treatment group adopted a cat and were followed for 18 weeks. Families assigned to the control group were followed for 18 weeks without intervention, then converted to treatment, by adopting a cat and were followed another 18 weeks. Adopted cats were screened using the Feline Temperament Profile to identify a calm temperament. Surveys measured children's social skills and anxiety and parent/child cat bonding.
Results: Our study (N = 11) found cat adoption was associated with greater Empathy and less Separation Anxiety for children with ASD, along with fewer problem behaviors including Externalizing, Bullying and Hyperactivity/Inattention. Parents and children reported strong bonds to the cats.
Conclusion: This exploratory study found introduction of a cat into the home may have a positive impact on children with ASD and their parents. Based on this intial finding, future studies with larger sample sizes are recommended.
Practice implications: If parents of children with ASD are considering cat adoption, health care providers might consider recommending adoption of a cat screened for calm temperament.
Keywords: Cats; Children with autism spectrum disorder; Companion animals; Pets; Social skills.
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