Past studies have shown that having a feline friend in the home can help lower stress and anxiety in children with autism. As it turns out, these benefits may be mutual.
According to a new study from researchers at the University of Missouri, cats’ stress levels go down after being adopted into homes with at least one child with autism. The team discovered this by monitoring the cats’s weight and measuring their levels of cortisol, which is associated with stress. The findings were recently published in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science.
Gretchen Carlisle, first author and research scientist at the MU Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction, says, “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. In our study, we found the cats acclimated well to their new families and became significantly less stressed over time.”
To conduct their research, the team monitored shelter cats before and after adoption into an autism family. They started with a Feline Temperament Profile screening to see which cats had a calm and laid-back personality. After families adopted the cats who had passed, the team checked in with them again a couple of days after the adoption and then every six weeks for 18 weeks. Throughout this process, they tested cats’ feces for cortisol levels, finding that they lowered significantly over time.
Carlisle adds, “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.”
She says that children with autism may have sensory issues and behavioral problems that can lead to outbursts. As a result, it may be a good idea for such families to seek out a laid-back cat to ensure that it’s a good fit for everyone.
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She says, “It’s crucial to look after the welfare of the cats from a humanitarian standpoint, and 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. 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 hopes that other researchers will build on this study to help shelter cats find their best forever homes and help families with an autistic child find the right furry friend.