Adopting a cat can make a big difference for kids with autism, new research suggests.

Children with the developmental disorder showed increased empathy and experienced fewer problem behaviors after welcoming a pet cat into their homes. They also displayed less separation anxiety, externalizing, bullying and hyperactivity or inattention.

The findings come from a study published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing looking at 11 families with children with autism ages 6 to 14. Four of the families adopted a cat from a shelter right away and were followed for 18 weeks. The remaining families were monitored for the initial 18-week period at which point they adopted shelter cats and were followed for another 18 weeks.

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All of the families adopted cats who were screened using a feline temperament profile to ensure that they were calm animals. Surveys were conducted every six weeks to assess the children’s social skills and anxiety as well as how well the parents and their kids bonded with their new pets.

Not only did the children with autism see improvements in their social skills, but both kids and their parents forged strong bonds with their cats and those bonds remained over time.

“Previous research has focused on interactions of dogs with children who have ASD, but dogs may not provide the best fit for all children and their families, especially given the hypersensitivities to sound that are common among children with ASD,” said Gretchen Carlisle, a research scientist at the University of Missouri Research Center for Human Animal Interaction who led the study. “We hope the results of this study will help encourage more families to consider the possibility of cat ownership and help more shelter cats find loving, deserving homes.”

Researchers say that the findings warrant a larger study of the influence of pet cats on kids with autism.

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