For individuals with autism, bringing a new dog or cat into the household can lead to significant social improvements, a first-of-its-kind study finds.

Researchers reported Wednesday in the journal PLoS One that those with autism displayed improvements in two areas — “offering to share” and “offering comfort” — within a few years of welcoming a new animal into their lives.

Similar progress was not observed among study participants on the spectrum who lived with a pet since birth or those who never had a pet at all.

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“This study reveals that in individuals with autism, pet arrival in the family setting may bring about changes in specific aspects of their socio-emotional development,” wrote the study’s lead author, Marine Grandgeorge of the Centre Hospitalier Régional Universitaire de Brest in France, and her colleagues. “To our knowledge, this is the first study showing an association between pet arrival and changes in prosocial behaviors.”

For the study, researchers compared individuals with autism who had dogs, cats or small animals like a hamster or rabbit in their home since birth to a control group made up of people with similar characteristics but who never lived with a pet.

They also looked at those on the spectrum who got a pet after age 5 as compared to individuals with autism without pets.

The 40 study participants were assessed using a test known as the Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised, or ADI-R, that was conducted when they were ages 4 to 5 and then once more when the children were older.

Researchers also interviewed the individuals’ parents about the presence of any pets in their homes and, where animals were present, asked about the relationship between the person with autism and the pet.

While no change was seen for individuals without pets or those who had pets since birth, acquiring a new animal appeared to increase the likelihood of sharing and comforting parents or peers, two so-called prosocial behaviors.

The reason for the improvements is not entirely clear and more research is needed, the study authors said.

Interestingly, however, they indicated that children who acquired a new pet were much more likely to spend time petting or playing with their furry friend than those who had a pet since birth.

In about half of cases where a new pet came into the home, parents reported that they acquired the animal specifically for their child with autism, but whether or not that was the reason did not appear to influence the level of social progress that the individual achieved, researchers said.

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