Cats’ preference for subtle social interactions may make them more appealing to autistic children, a new study has found.
To celebrate National Cat Day, we take a look at how the traits that cause some to describe cats as aloof might also make them good pets for children with autism.
Scientists at the University of Rennes in France observed 23 autistic and 19 non-autistic children and found that autistic children might prefer spending time with cats instead of dogs.
The “less intrusive glance” of cats may be why they feel more comfortable with cats, says Marine Grandgeorge who worked on the study.
Unlike dogs, cats avoid long gazes. Maintaining direct eye contact for long periods is a sign of aggression in cat language, which is why they tend to communicate in glances. And for some autistic children, eye contact can feel intense and overwhelming.
“Cats glance, look away, then glance back again briefly, and what we see is the child then actively seeking attention from the cat,” says Martin Hausberger, who also worked on the study.
The scientists from the study suggest that people may inaccurately think autistic children avoid social contact when in reality it could be that they feel intimidated by the direct way in which non-autistic people approach them.
Cats’ preference for subtler communication can ease children into socialising and help develop their ability to connect.
Of course, you don’t hear of therapy cats as much as you hear about therapy dogs. Dogs can be easier to train and they express emotion exuberantly, whereas cats have a reputation for being more reserved.
But the reality is that there is a wealth of canine behavioural research and a scarcity of feline research, which means we don't have as much understanding about what cats may be thinking. But this is changing.
Scientists are working to redress this imbalance, and there’s a growing body of evidence that cats bond with their owners the same way babies and dogs do.
We asked Sarah Dawson, a former vet nurse and ManyPets’s technical claims manager, about what she thinks of cats as therapy pets.
“Cats like to assess a situation less intrusively compared to dogs. Cats will generally take their time when meeting people and respond better to a less hands-on approach in a calm environment, which links in well with autism where equally a child with certain needs may become frightened and less responsive to a full-on loud environment," she says.
"I feel the calm approach of a cat will have a positive impact on someone suffering from a physical or mental health condition.”
To learn more about how you or your family can benefit from the presence of a therapy cat, check out Pets As Therapy. The charity has volunteers whose pets are trained therapy animals and work within communities to support people with mental health conditions and other illnesses, including autism.