Pets May Help Autism Families Alleviate Stress

April 30, 2020

Owning Multiple Pets Provides Most Comfort

New research out of the University of Missouri has discovered that pet ownership can be a positive experience for families with a member on the autism spectrum. Researchers from the university surveyed 764 families using the Interactive Autism Network about the benefits and burdens of pet ownership. Data extracted from the survey showed that the added responsibility of caring for a pet was well worth the effort. Children in homes with dog(s) and/or cat(s) were able to form bonds with their pet(s) which, in turn, provided the child with more comfort and less stress.

Gretchen Carlisle, a co-author of the study and a scientist with the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction in the MU College of Veterinary Medicine, sheds light on ways pets support children with autism. She states, “Given that the characteristics of autism spectrum disorder are so broad, it can be difficult to identify interventions that are widely beneficial. Some of the core challenges that children with autism face include anxiety and difficulty communicating. 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.”

It’s been long documented that parenting a child with autism is stressful. Earlier this year, Disability Scoop reported that 18.6% of parents of children on the spectrum met the criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This research was released before COVID-19 stay-at-home orders were put in place. It stands to reason that PTSD rates among autism parents could be even higher now as they juggle work schedules, household duties and running their child’s special needs educational program. Finding methods to reduce stress and anxiety for autism parents is important. Discovering a method this is integrated with their daily home routine is optimal, especially now. According to this new study, pet ownership may fit the bill.

Interestingly enough, as Yahoo News reports, it’s not just a single pet that provides support, “…parents with more pets (both a dog and a cat) reported more benefits than those who only had one dog or cat, and parents who perceived more benefits also reported less stress.”

Two additional interesting findings came out of the study. First, dog owners reported more benefits than cat owners. Second, lower income families reported greater bonds between their special needs child and the family pet, thus, enjoying more benefits to pet ownership.

However, before families run out and get a pet, Carlisle recommends that parents think about their child’s special needs and the personality of the pet.

“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,” advises Carlisle.


Gretchen Carlisle, Rebecca A. Johnson, Ze Wang, Timothy C. Brosi, Emily M. Rife, Alisa Hutchinson. Exploring Human—Companion Animal Interaction in Families of Children with Autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. March 2020.

Brian Consiglio. Stress in parents of children with autism: Pets may help. Mizzou News. April 24, 2020.

Michelle Diament. Autism Parents May Be At Risk For PTSD. Disability Scoop. March 10, 2020.

Michelle Stewart, Alexandra Schnabel, David J. Halford, Jane A. McGillivray, David Forbes, Madeline Foster, Kerrie Shandley, Madeleine Gardam, David W. Austin. Challenging child behaviours positively predict symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder in parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Rare Diseases. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. Volume 69, January 2020.

Staff reporter. A family pet could relieve stress for parents of kids with autism. Yahoo News! April 28, 2020.

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