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Feature December 2016 Issue

'Feline Friends' to the Rescue

An upcoming study hopes to find benefit in placing shelter cats in the homes of children with autism.

The University of Missouri plans to study the benefits of placing shelter cats in homes of children with autism thanks to fundraising help from the MU Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction.

The project — called “Feline Friends” — is important because one in 68 children is diagnosed with autism, according to Rebecca Johnson, PhD, Director of the center. “Anything we can do to assist these children to have better social interaction and social adjustment is very important right now because of the increased incidence,” said Dr. Johnson.

Previous research has shown improved social skills in children with autism when they live with a dog, but parents have said that other animals — like cats — have also proved beneficial these children, says Dr. Gretchen Carlisle, PhD, a post-doctoral fellow that will be participating in the project. “What we would like to explore is whether or not some of the benefits of increased social skills that we’ve seen with dogs could also be found with cats in these homes,” said Dr. Carlisle.

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In previous research, it was found that children sometimes respond better to a quiet animal like a cat as opposed to an energetic dog.

“In Dr. Carlisle’s previous research, it was found that sometimes children respond better to a quiet animal like a cat. Dogs are often very vigorous and energetic — and sometimes ‘in your face’ type pets can be a problem for children with autism,” explained Dr. Johnson. “They may not like that kind of exuberance.”

According to Dr. Johnson, researchers will use a national standardized instrument, which is recognized as a reliable way to assess cat behavior and temperament to make sure that the cats selected for the research are social and engaging. Researchers will measure both the anxiety and stress levels in the children, as well as cortisol stress levels in the cats to measure the success of the project. It is hoped that the study will benefit both the families and the shelter cats. — Catnip staff

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