Autism Spectrum Disorder & Pets: The Evidence

Do pets improve problem behaviours and social skills in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)? If you ask a dog website this question, here’s what happens: “More and more, studies are showing how amazing dogs can be for these children.

While I do believe pets can be helpful, statements like these are misleading.

The truth is that the benefits of pets for autism are often overstated. Most of the ‘studies’ we do have are in the form of unscientific observations or interviews of pet owners. They suffer from a lack of comparison groups and low participation rates. Well-designed research is scarce.

I’ll try to explain the evidence available, and then add my own impressions as a practising veterinarian. Here we are focusing on pets, not trained service dogs.

ASD and Pets: The Evidence

There are only two studies that compared children with and without pets that found statistically significant differences:

Grandgeorge et al (2012) found that the arrival of a pet between the age of 4 to 5 was associated with a better score for “offering to share” (e.g. sharing food or toys with parents or other children) and “offering comfort” (e.g. reassuring parents or peers who were sad or hurt).

Carlisle (2015) found that children with ASD in pet owning families had greater social skills for the subscale item of ‘‘assertion,’’ when compared with children in non-pet owning families.

That’s it. The biggest fault with both studies is that we cannot tell if the pets caused the improvements, or if there was another reason these children did better. That might seem picky but consider this: income level, family support, and severity of a child’s ASD are all likely to affect a family’s decision whether to get a pet and at the same time affect whether a child does better or worse.

In other words, you might find that families who choose pets are more likely to have better results just because of who they are or what they do, not the pet at all.

Good Pets For Children With Autism

My personal view is not that pet ownership won’t help children with ASD, but that we lack the evidence to prove it. Animals give children with ASD the chance of a positive interaction that doesn’t require good social skills. They can also offer unconditional support in hard times. However, both of these rely completely on you making the right choice. So from here on I’ll use my experiences to help you choose the right pet.

Best Dogs For Autism

Dog ownership encourages activities together, like outings and training classes. Therefore, they can add a lot of value to a family. However, I have seen dogs go badly more often than cats in families with ASD.

The reason, I believe, is that the dogs chosen could not cope with unpredictable behaviour. They became anxious, then fear-aggressive, and in the end required separation from the very children they were supposed to help. Their already-busy families ended up with more work, and no reward.

It’s essential to choose a dog that’s placid, not prone to anxiety and very unlikely to bite under any circumstances. Special mention should go to the Labrador and Golden Retriever: two breeds more likely to take things in their stride, be healthy, and as a bonus also bark less.

However, in choosing a dog, also choose the individual with just as much care. This is a situation where I would never buy online. You want to meet calm, confident parents and a well-bred puppy that’s neither fearful or excitable.

Best Cats For Autism

If someone is open to the idea, my personal advice is to choose a cat. Cats don’t require daily exercise, are easier to look after, quieter, and if things don’t work out, less of a problem. I also think they can be more resilient if chosen well.

The ideal cat is outgoing, friendly and not fearful. Breeds known for these traits include the Ragdoll, Birman and Burmese. For the best results, ASD or not, start with a young kitten so they learn to like the unpredictable behaviour of children. If possible, look for kittens that the breeder had already exposed to children before sale.

Possibly a better decision is to visit your local cat shelter in kitten season. You can meet tens or even hundreds of kittens until you meet one that has the right amiable personality. You’ll also have the satisfaction of a life saved.

Other Species?

There’s a good reason why dogs and cats are our society’s ‘default’ small pets.

There’s also a lot said about horses and ASD but I’m right out of my comfort zone here.

Pet Ownership Considerations

No one should ever feel that they should get a pet. Experts in ASD are lukewarm at best about the benefits. In fact, some have gone so far as to warn that a pet done badly could actually reduce a child’s positive interactions with people.

Owning a pet is also a lifelong commitment of money, time and emotion. You can get an idea of ongoing dog expenses on this page. Regarding time spent, dogs need at least 30 minutes of exercise a day, and even cats don’t do well without attention. Emotional costs are also significant and most obvious in illness and death.

If all this seems daunting, it’s worth checking if there are programs in your area that allow families to interact with pets without the responsibility of ownership.

My aim in writing this is not to put you off, but to maximise the success of pets in our society. I see pets appear to help children with ASD, but I also see too much hype, and too many failures that go unreported. I hope I can help you make a rational, informed decision, and if you get a pet, to get one that prospers.

Further Reading

Carlisle GK. The social skills and attachment to dogs of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. J Autism Devel Disord. 2015;45(5): 1137–1145.

Crossman, M. K., & Kazdin, A. E. (2016). Additional evidence is needed to recommend acquiring a dog to families of children with autism spectrum disorder: A response to Wright and colleagues. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 46(1), 332-335.

Grandgeorge, M., Tordjman, S., Lazartigues, A., Lemonnier, E., Deleau, M., & Hausberger, M. (2012). Does pet arrival trigger prosocial behaviors in individuals with autism?. PloS one, 7(8), e41739.

By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These blogs are from a series regularly posted on Facebook and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!
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Andrew

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