Research to Study Effect of Shelter Cat Adoption on Children with Autism

in Science & Tech by

Cat with a child

The Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) announced earlier this month it has awarded a grant of $52,204 to the University of Missouri for a new study, Shelter Cat Adoption in Families of Children with Autism: Impact on Children’s Social Skills and Anxiety as well as Cat Stress.

Researchers will investigate the effects of introducing a shelter cat on social skills and anxiety in children with autism, as well as study stress levels experienced by the cats.

“Preliminary research demonstrates the effectiveness of companion animal interaction on alleviating social skills deficits and anxiety in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD),” said the study’s Principal Investigator, Gretchen Carlisle.

Carlisle, of the University of Missouri’s College of Veterinary Medicine, added, “While many studies have focused on the impact of dogs on children with ASD, this study aims to determine the beneficial impacts of a pet cat on children with autism and their families, as the temperament and the ease of care for cats compared to other animals may increase the likelihood of a positive outcome for the children, the cats and the family as a whole.”

Along with this grant, the PIs have also received $25,000 in funding from the Winn Feline Foundation.

The combination of these funds allow the PIs to increase the sample size and bring in a statistician, which will result in more definitive and thorough findings.

“Winn Feline Foundation is thrilled to have initially supported this important study on the human-cat bond and to hear of HABRI’s grant award. Their additional support will strengthen the study’s findings. This significant project evaluating the effects and benefits of adoption of cats by children and families with ASD fits our mission and values,” said Winn’s Executive Director Dr. Vicki Thayer.

The research to be undertaken is described as follows:

Using a two-group, randomized, repeated measures design with a delayed treatment control group, this 18-month study will recruit participants through a Mid-western autism diagnostic and treatment center.

Shelter cats from two local animal shelters will be screened for temperament and then enrolled.

Dr. Carlisle, and co-PI Rebecca Johnson, PhD, Professor and Director, Research Center for Human Animal Interaction, College of Veterinary Medicine, and Co-Investigators Jessica Bibbo, PhD, Colleen Koch, DVM, Leslie Lyons, PhD, and Nancy Cheak-Zamora, PhD, will pre-screen the human participants and families will be randomized into the treatment or delayed treatment control groups. Cat stress will be measured through fecal cortisol.

Caregivers will complete a 19-item demographic questionnaire and children’s social skills and ASD symptoms will be measured using several instruments. Families randomized into the treatment group will adopt a cat first while those in the control group will adopt a cat after 18 weeks.

The investigators expect to find that children of families with an adopted shelter cat will have increased social skills, decreased anxiety and that they will become bonded with their cat. It is also expected that cats will adjust to their new homes without significant stress.

“This study has great potential to advance our knowledge of the benefits of the human-animal bond for children and families with ASD,” said Steven Feldman, HABRI Executive Director. “Caregivers and parents should select the pet that is best suited for their family and for the well-being of the animal – maybe that’s a cat.”

For more information about The Human Animal Bond Research Institute, visit

To learn more about the Winn Feline Foundation, visit

Photo: Maxpixel (cc)