Human-Companion Animal Interaction and Parent Stress in Families of Children with Autism

Poster Presentation
Friday, May 3, 2019: 5:30 PM-7:00 PM
Room: 710 (Palais des congres de Montreal)
G. K. Carlisle1, R. A. Johnson2, A. Hutchison1, T. Brosi3 and E. Rife4, (1)College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO, (2)College of Veterinary Medicine and Sinclair School of Nursing, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO, (3)University of Missouri, Columbia, MO, (4)Veterinary Medicine, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO

Extant literature on interaction of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Companion Animals (CAs) found animals to be an alternative/adjunctive method of alleviating social skills deficits and anxiety. Parents report benefits of companionship, unconditional love, happiness and learning responsibility from animal care-taking. In one study, lower stress was associated with living with CAs for parents of children with ASD.


This study aimed to examine CA ownership patterns in families of children with ASD, and to identify potential health and safety risks to the CAs. We also explored the relationship between CA ownership and parental stress among families of children with ASD. Additionally, we sought to assess characteristics of the relationship between children with ASD and the family CA, along with parental perceptions of potential benefits and barriers of human-CA interaction.


Participants (N=747) were recruited via the Interactive Autism Network (IAN) Research Database at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, Baltimore. Instruments included a demographic survey, Parenting Stress Index Short Form, Animal Ownership for Families of Children with ASD Scale, Lexington Attachment to Pets Scale and the Companion Animal Bonding Scale. Participants who access the IAN were invited to complete the instruments anonymously online.


Preliminary descriptive findings revealed the following information: Parent age (Mean=44.9 years, SD=7.3), Gender (90% female), Child age (Mean=12.8 years, SD=7.3), Child Gender (78% male), CA ownership: (82% CA owners). Of the CA, 34% were dogs, 23% cats and 42% of participants had both a dog and cat. The Parenting Stress Index data revealed that 52% of parents believed their children were a major source of stress in their life. Health and safety risks to the CA include the report of 5% of all parents that a CA would be in danger in their household. Among CA owners 9% reported that their child “sometimes” harmed their pet. Barriers of CA ownership were also found for parents. Parents (25%) reported that their children were bothered or irritated by their pet. A small percentage (13%) of parents reported that their children were fearful of some CAs, and of those 9% identified dogs. Benefits of CA ownership included increased parental exercise, social interaction and relaxation. Parents reported that their children were attached to their CA (58%). The CA-owning children were reported most attached to dogs (38%) and cats (28%). A close relationship with their CA was reported by 78% of parents, and 94% reported that their CA made them feel happy. Parents (87%) indicated that their CA helped them stay healthy, and 82% reported their CA knew when they felt bad.


Our findings reveal that CAs may be of particular benefit to parents of children with ASD by providing friendship and promoting health. This may be especially helpful given that the parents were under considerable stress, perceived to be largely associated with parenting.