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HABRI Gives Grant to Study That Will Examine Shelter Cat Adoption in Families of Children with Autism


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The Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) has awarded a $52,204 grant 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. The study will examine the effect of the introduction of a shelter cat on social skills and anxiety in children with autism, and on stress levels for the cats themselves.

“Preliminary research demonstrates the effectiveness of companion animal interaction on alleviating social skills deficits and anxiety in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD),” said Gretchen Carlisle, the study’s principal investigator, Ph.D., College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Missouri. “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.”

In addition to HABRI’s grant award, the principal investigators have also received funding from the Winn Feline Foundation in the amount of $25,000. The combined funding from Winn Feline and HABRI have enabled the principal investigators to expand the sample size and add the support of a statistician, which will greatly enhance the power of the study and hopefully result in more definitive and robust findings.

Using a two-group, randomized, repeated measures design with a delayed treatment control group, the 18-month study will recruit participants through a Midwestern autism diagnostic and treatment center. Shelter cats from two local animal shelters will be screened for temperament and then enrolled. Carlisle, and co-principal investigator Rebecca Johnson, Ph.D., professor and director, research center for Human Animal Interaction, College of Veterinary Medicine, and co-investigators Jessica Bibbo, Ph.D., Colleen Koch, DVM, Leslie Lyons, Ph.D., and Nancy Cheak-Zamora, Ph.D., 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 HABRI executive director Steven Feldman. “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.”

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