Cats have a long history of improving people’s moods and brightening their days, which also appears to be true for children with autism, new research published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing has revealed.

The small study suggests that adopting a shelter cat may help reduce separation anxiety and improve empathy in children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

“Cats and pets in general, offer unconditional acceptance and someone to talk to and to be heard with. And caring for an animal can help them learn to be responsible, “said Gretchen Carlisle, study author and scientific researcher at the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri in Columbia, United States.

ASD is a brain disorder that affects social skills, communication, and impulse control. In the United States alone, it affects one in 54 children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in that country.

The new work included 11 families who had children with autism between the ages of 6 and 14. The families were followed for 18 weeks after adopting a shelter cat. The researchers used standardized social skills and anxiety scales to choose the children who were likely to respond well to a pet. The cats were also evaluated for temperament.

In general, parents reported an instant bond between child and cat, and the bond remained strong over time, even with the added responsibility of caring for the pet.

The researchers found that the children’s separation anxiety, bullying, and hyperactivity decreased over the study period and they showed more empathy after adopting the cat. Most of the families kept the animal after the study ended.

Carlisle stressed that it’s not that cats are a better choice than dogs, but feline companions may be particularly suitable for some children with autism and their families.

“Many children with autism have sensory issues and when a dog barks in your face it can be really overwhelming, whereas cats just sit next to you and are less overwhelming from a sensory point of view,” he explained.

Cats can also be much easier to care for, especially for parents of children with autism who already carry a heavy load of responsibilities and stress, Carlisle said.

However, he added that the right combination is key.

“We specifically selected cats from 10 months to 4 years because there is previous documentation that younger cats are more sociable with children with autism, and adult temperament tends to establish at 10 months in these animals, so as young as 10 months old, cats already have the adult temperament,” Carlisle explained.

Several autism experts agree that adopting a pet can have benefits for children with autism and their families, always taking into account the information mentioned above. If you have a daughter or son with autism and you have more questions, consult a specialist in the field.