Do domestic cats help children with developmental problems such as autism and ADHD?
I am sure that many parents have discussed whether adopting a cat or dog can help their child who has been diagnosed with autism or ADHD. There is quite a lot of information on the internet about the benefits of children with developmental problems interacting with animals. There are even programs run by charities where children can interact with animals so this is a well-established means for providing children with comfort and a social and esteem support method. They can learn to read behaviour and develop social skills.
What do the scientists say about this? I can refer to 2 studies on the internet with slightly different conclusions. The first concerns “affectionate interactions of cats with children having autism spectrum disorder (ASD)” (link: https://doi.org/10.3389/fvets.2018.00039)
Domestic cats benefiting children with autism
The summary to this study states:
“Most parents with ASD children volunteered positive comments regarding the cat, such as calming the child, being a soothing protector or a guardian.”
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“Most parents of ASD children reported affectionate behavior to the children by the cat. The positive interactions of cats with ASD children revealed that cats can provide an avenue of positive relationships. When there were limitations in the relationships, these usually appeared to be from the cats’ unwillingness to be affectionate rather than the child being disinterested….It seems that cats in families with an ASD child often provided valuable bonding, attention, and calming affection to the child.”
That sounds really great but it’s not all perfect. For example, most parents thought that their cats were “at least moderately affectionate towards the child”. That may simply be because domestic cats are not always outgoing. They are quite reserved creatures.
They also found that cats living with severe ASD children were less affectionate compared to those living with children with less severe ASD. Some cats showed some aggression to a child but this wasn’t apparently related to whether the child had ASD or not.
This observation is more about the socialisation of the cat. Which brings me to the next overall observation namely that:
“Responses suggested that the cats adopted as kittens were more affectionate and less aggressive to all categories of children than those adopted as adults.”
The conclusion, here then is that there are genuine benefits to children on the autism spectrum disorder in interacting with a domestic cat particularly so when the cat has been adopted as a kitten and socialised to the child when they were kittens.
If I was a parent, I would consider that route if I was also considering adopting a cat to help my child.
Domestic cats benefiting children with mental health issues
Another study looked at the benefits of cats for children with mental health and general developmental issues. The study is called “Household Cats and Children’s Mental Health”.
They start off with what appears to be a slightly disturbing conclusion which is that “household cat ownership was significantly associated with parent reports of child attention problems”. They are saying that their review of studies found that there are cats in homes with children suffering from attention problems which begs the question whether the cats are causing the attention problems!
They don’t come to a decision on that but I will! It is probable that parents have adopted a cat to try and help their child who might be suffering from ADHD with the intention of calming the child down and helping them to develop. And that’s why there are cats in homes with ADHD children.
The authors of the study say the following about this:
“One possible interpretation is that cats are chosen as pets by families of children with attention problems because they are easier to care for, an advantage to families challenged by a child’s attention problems.”
The authors also focused on another aspect of owning a cat which I find slightly disturbing but needs to be mentioned. It concerns the well-known pathogen Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii) causing toxoplasmosis described as “one of the common zoonosis”. What they mean is that it is a common disease which crosses the animal-human barrier.
They refer to the potential dangers of interacting with a cat in acquiring toxoplasmosis. They state that T. gondii has been found to increase dopamine metabolism and they follow that with the statement that “treatment with dopamine agonists has been found to decrease symptoms of ADHD”. What they appear to be suggesting there is the Toxoplasma gondii can help a child with ADHD not because of the cat’s company and presence but because they have transmitted toxoplasmosis to the child!
They suggest that children contracting toxoplasmosis achieve lower maths scores and lower reading and memory scores. They are suggesting that toxoplasmosis can impact a child’s cognitive development but they admit that the results are inconsistent. But this statement is saying that cats are detrimental to a child’s development rather than beneficial.
In conclusion, they say there are risks and benefits in having a cat in the home when the ADHD child but that the risks “are not well understood”.
My conclusion on this study
You make your own mind up on that. Firstly, I think that the risks of acquiring toxoplasmosis or exaggerated but they need to be stated. One problem with the diseases that it is nearly always asymptomatic. There are no symptoms and therefore you don’t know whether you’ve got it or not.
But the disease has been used a lot by people who dislike cats to criticise domestic cats. It provides them with ammunition and therefore I can’t always be sure that even in studies the authors are being objective and unbiased. I sense without evidence that the study authors are biased against the cat.
My overall conclusion
Animals including domestic cat are beneficial to children with developmental problems including ADHD and autism. That appears to be the overall consensus but it must be admitted that toxoplasmosis is an ever present distracting negative aspect which needs to be known about but I would be wary of comments and statements about this disease on the Internet because, as mentioned, there is a lot of bias.
Some more on kids and cats: