Parents of children with autism often report higher levels of stress than other moms and dads, but new research suggests that having a furry friend — or two — can make a big difference.

A study looking at the experiences of 764 families with children on the spectrum finds that having a dog or cat is associated with lower stress for both kids with autism and their parents.

“Some of the core challenges that children with autism face include anxiety and difficulty communicating,” said Gretchen Carlisle, a research scientist at the University of Missouri’s College of Veterinary Medicine who led the study published recently in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. “As pets can help increase social interaction and decrease anxiety, we found that they are not only helpful in providing comfort and support to children with autism, but to their parents as well.”

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Parents who participated in the study completed an online survey asking about themselves, their child and their relationships with any pets in their household.

Even with the added responsibilities of caring for animals, researchers found that pet ownership was not associated with parental stress. In fact, moms and dads with more than one animal cited additional benefits.

Families with lower incomes reported the strongest bonds with their pets and greater stress relief as a result, the study found. Dog owners saw more benefits than cat owners, but families with both a dog and a cat realized greater gains compared to those with just one type of pet.

The researchers concluded that pets may offer needed companionship to lonely, stressed parents while also providing kids on the spectrum a non-threatening conversation topic and a way to relate to typically-developing children.

Carlisle said it’s important for families of children with autism to carefully consider what type of pet might be the best fit in their home.

“Some kids with autism have specific sensitivities, so a big, loud dog that is highly active might cause sensory overload for a particular child, while a quiet cat may be a better fit,” Carlisle said.