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MU Researchers to Study the Benefits Cats Can Have On Kids With Autism

Moyan Brenn

The MU Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction is introducing a new research program titled "The Feline Friends Project." The project will pair children with autism with a cat and monitor the impact the cat has on the child’s anxiety level and social skills.

The research center has published several studies that outline the benefits that children with autism receive from having pets in the home, citing increased social skills as a primary benefit. With this study, researchers hope to find possible benefits unique to the behaviors exhibited by cats. 

Rebecca Johnson, director of the research center, says dogs have been good companions in previous studies, but many children with autism are sensitive to the sound of their bark, and their playfulness can sometimes be viewed as aggression. 

"The idea of a quiet, soft animal like a cat was very appealing to the children who were studied," Johnson said.

Johnson believes the less aggressive and quieter behavior of cats will appeal to the children. Johnson says the research center has a long history with both the Columbia Humane Society and Second Chance Animal Shelter, and the feline friends as well as the families involved in the study will be from Mid-Missouri.

Michelle Casey, assistant director of the Central Missouri Humane Society, says the Humane Society currently has between 70 and 100 cats in their care either in the shelter or in foster homes.

“We are always looking for opportunities to advocate for the adoption of our animals,” Casey said.

The Feline Friends Project is currently raising money to pay for the food and other supplies the cats will need throughout the study.