When a Child With Autism Gets a Shelter Cat, Both May Do Better Together Experiencing Less Stress

    By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer for Science & Technology

    Nine-year-old McLain Clevenger has found true companionship and comfort in Bash, the family cat. Bash got his name for being bashful, which ended up being a good match for McLain from Moberly, Missouri.  McLain seems to like the cat’s low-key nature.  McLain has autism and seems to understand Bash, especially whenever Bash dashes away from company and hides.

    “I think he’s too nervous to come out,” McLain explained.

    After all, the two were meant to be when research assistants from the University of Missouri found Bash for McLain through a research study. The MU College of Veterinary Medicine study selected shelter cats for Missouri families like the Clevenger’s. Families participating in the study have at least one child with autism. A match is made to see if the children and the cats do better together.

    “They had these animals in the shelter and they went in and ran some behavioral testing on them,” explained Jayme Clevenger, McLain’s mom. “They picked three, gave us a call and said we have three matches that we think are going to work great with your child with his personality and his characteristics. They (the cats) were great. They were very calm, their personalities meshed really well and when we saw Bash, he was number three. And when we saw him, it was game over for us.”

    In fact the match is so good, Bash occasionally goes on trips to McLain’s school. Jayme Clevenger explained that Bash helps McLain manage stress and anxiety.

    “Communication is a huge part of autism in general,” said Jayme Clevenger. “He (McLain) knows what he wants to say, but for it to come from the brain out the mouth is really hard. So in return, you get the anxiety and then you get behaviors as well. We’ve been blessed not to have the behavioral side. We were smart enough to kind of figure that out a little bit in advance and realize it’s not behavior, it’s anxiety.”

    Researchers previously found that adding a shelter cat to the family can help lower stress and anxiety for children with autism. In this case, Bash also suffered from a case of anxiety at the shelter. So this new study at the MU College of Veterinary Medicine shows how the match does wonders for the felines, too. First, the shelter cats were screened using the Feline Temperament Profile.

    “If you’re looking at a child with sensory issues, a child that may have frequent temper tantrums or outbursts, this really requires an animal who will also be successful and tolerates this. We need an animal that’s going to have that resilient, calm social behavior,” said Gretchen Carlisle, PhD, research scientist at the MU Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction.

    After a match was made, Carlisle’s research team made home visits to check on the cats. And what Carlisle found in these active home environments is that the cats became significantly less stressed over time. In the Clevenger household, Bash settled in!

    The measures we used, the first we used was cat weight. It’s well documented that cats that are under stress tend to lose weight. And the cats in our study all gained weight after adoption and maintained that better weight,” said Carlisle. “The other measure that we did was cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone. In our study, we found no increase in the cortisol levels of the cats after adoption.”

    The findings suggest that screening shelter cats for a calm, easy-going temperament may increase the likelihood of a better, long-term match for both the children and the cats.

    “It’s really grown McLain’s social skills. He (Bash) has taught him (McLain) how to have a bond with someone,” explained Jayme. “Understanding your emotions, his emotions, others emotions is a tough challenge for individuals on the spectrum. For McLain, he’s learned to work through those emotions and have a bond with someone because it’s very hard for McLain to bond with someone.”

     McLain knows Bash so well that he will offer advice to anyone who is not in the family wanting to hold Bash.

    “Sometimes you have to be careful of him because when you hold him, sometimes he can scrape you and he just runs off,” explained McLain.

    “It’s a beautiful match and it’s taught McLain so much. Responsibility is huge,” said Jayme. “So McLain has a responsibility. That’s his cat. It’s a reason for him to wake up each day.”