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MU researcher hopes to study benefits of cats for children with autism

From Columbia Missourian, Sept. 25, 2016

COLUMBIA — The MU Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction is raising money for a research project called Feline Friends to study the possible benefits of placing adoptable cats in homes of children with autism.

Children with autism who have pets exhibit greater social skills than those without pets, according to a 2015 study by Gretchen Carlisle, a post-doctoral fellow at the research center. The objective of the Feline Friends project is to give families of children with autism better research-based information about choosing a pet for their home.

The goal of the campaign is to raise $29,000, which would allow researchers to go into animal shelters and identify cats that would do well in homes of children with autism. The money also would help families who participate in the study pay for supplies such as food, toys, a litter box and a crate.

It’s always ‘dog, dog, dog’

The study of human-animal interaction is a relatively new field of research. People who may benefit from the research often hear about it over social media instead of from a medical professional, Carlisle said.

“In social media, people just hear this — dog, dog, dog,” Carlisle said, gesturing toward a photo in her office of a dog in a red collar sitting obediently.

Dogs may not always be the best companion animal for children with autism, though. Some children with autism have a sensory sensitivity to noise, for example, so a dog’s sudden barking can be more upsetting for them than for a child without autism. Dogs can also be more “in your face,” Carlisle said, and are often much larger than cats.

The decision about what kind of animal to bring into the home of a child with autism should be deliberate. That’s one of the goals of the research — to enable families to make more informed decisions, Carlisle said.

“It’s really important for (children with autism) to get that match,” Carlisle said. “We want the benefits to outweigh the burdens (of having a pet).”

In Carlisle’s study of families of children with autism, researchers found no statistically significant evidence that having a dog in the home improved social interaction scores of the child. But when families of children with autism who had any kind of pet were surveyed, improvements in the child’s social interaction scores became statistically significant. Carlisle wondered if cats, another common pet in U.S. households, could be “tipping the scales.”

Families that include a child with autism are under a lot of stress, Carlisle noted, and that makes them “more prone to grasp onto things that may or may not be true or helpful, so we want to provide them more scientific evidence to help them make a better choice.”

Cat criteria

So how does a parent figure out what kind of cat to bring into a home where there’s a child with autism? The behavior of cats that come from shelters can be unpredictable, and that’s an undesirable characteristic for an animal living in the home of a child with autism. For that reason, the research center will measure the behavior of the cats before they use them in the study to make sure they’re calm enough.

James Ha, an assistant clinical professor at the University of California, Davis, created the Homeward Pet Cat Temperament Survey, meant to measure a cat’s outward behavior. The survey measures aspects like a cat’s playfulness, vocalness and hostility toward humans and other cats.

Researchers plan to use Ha’s survey as one tool to predict whether a cat adopted from a shelter would be a good match for a child with autism, Carlisle said.

The age of the cat can also make a difference. Referencing the experiences of Leslie Lyons, a professor of comparative medicine at MU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, Carlisle said cats between the ages of nine months and three years would be optimal for the study. By the age of nine months, cats’ temperaments “even out” and become predictable. Cats under the age of three years are often more playful and adapt more easily to a new environment.

As of Saturday, about $120 had been raised toward the $29,000 goal.