Shelter Cat Adoption in Families of Children with Autism: Impact on Children’s Social Skills and Anxiety as Well as Cat Stress | HABRI

Shelter Cat Adoption in Families of Children with Autism: Impact on Children’s Social Skills and Anxiety as Well as Cat Stress

Principal Investigator

Gretchen Carlisle

Full Text


Temperament of the animal may play a role in the benefits of human-animal interaction for children with ASD. The temperament of trained animals used in AAT and service dogs, which have been associated with benefits, is typically described as calm and quiet. Children with ASD commonly present with hypo and/or hypersensory issues, with over-reactivity to sound being identified most often.


  • Children with ASD will have greater social skills after the introduction of a shelter cat into their family.
  • Children with ASD will have less anxiety after the introduction of a shelter cat into their family.
  • Children with ASD and their caregivers will develop a bond with their cat. The second objective is to explore the health and safety of cats in families of children with ASD.
  • After a transition period, shelter cats introduced into the families of children with ASD will not demonstrate significant signs of stress.


This study will examine the effect of the introduction of a shelter cat on social skills and anxiety in children with autism, and on stress levels for the cats themselves.

Using a two-group, randomized, repeated measures design with a delayed treatment control group, this 18-month study will recruit participants through a Mid-western autism diagnostic and treatment center. Shelter cats from two local animal shelters will be screened for temperament and then enrolled. Dr. Carlisle, and co-PI Rebecca Johnson, PhD, Professor and Director, Research Center for Human Animal Interaction, College of Veterinary Medicine, and Co-Investigators Jessica Bibbo, PhD, Colleen Koch, DVM, Leslie Lyons, PhD, and Nancy Cheak-Zamora, PhD, will pre-screen the human participants and families will be randomized into the treatment or delayed treatment control groups. Cat stress will be measured through fecal cortisol. Caregivers will complete a 19-item demographic questionnaire and children’s social skills and ASD symptoms will be measured using several instruments. Families randomized into the treatment group will adopt a cat first and while those in the control group will adopt a cat after 18 weeks.


This study (N = 11) found cat adoption was associated with greater Empathy and less Separation Anxiety for children with ASD, along with fewer problem behaviors including Externalizing, Bullying and Hyperactivity/Inattention. Parents and children reported strong bonds to the cats. This exploratory study found introduction of a cat into the home may have a positive impact on children with ASD and their parents. Based on this initial finding, future studies with larger sample sizes are recommended.

Expected Results

The investigators expect to find that children of families with an adopted shelter cat will have increased social skills, decreased anxiety and that they will become bonded with their cat. It is also expected that cats will adjust to their new homes without significant stress.

Additional Publications

Lamontagne, A., Johnson, R. A., Carlisle, G. K., Lyons, L. A., Bibbo, J. L., Koch, C., & Osterlind, S. J. (2020). Efficacy of the Feline Temperament Profile in evaluating sheltered cats for adoption into families of a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Animal Studies Journal9(2), 21-55.

Carlisle, G. K., Johnson, R. A., Koch, C. S., Lyons, L. A., Wang, Z., Bibbo, J., & Cheak-Zamora, N. (2021). Exploratory Study of Fecal Cortisol, Weight, and Behavior as Measures of Stress and Welfare in Shelter Cats During Assimilation Into Families of Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder. Frontiers in Veterinary Science8, 643803.

Carlisle, G. K., Lamontagne, A., Bibbo, J., Johnson, R. A., & Lyons, L. A. (2023). Experiences of parents of autistic children who adopted a cat. Qualitative Social Work, 14733250231151946.