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Healthy Pets

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Pets May Help Kids With Autism

Study Shows Bonding With New Pet May Improve Socialization
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Aug. 1, 2012 -- By just about any measure of accomplishment, Danny Gross would be considered a successful young adult.

The 25-year-old is a popular graduate student in cinematic arts at the University of Southern California, and his mother, Patty, calls him an all-around great kid.

He is also on the autism spectrum.

His mother is convinced that his childhood golden retriever, Madison, who joined the family when Danny was 7, played a part in his success, and a new study backs up the claim.

Pets May Help Some Autistic Kids

Although there is plenty of anecdotal evidence linking pet ownership to better socialization in children with autism, the study is among the first to explore the connection.

Researchers in France tested behavior and intelligence in 260 children with autism who did and did not have pets -- mostly dogs and cats.

They found that those who became pet owners after the age of 5 performed better than children without pets on two key measures of social functioning -- offering comfort and offering to share.

The extent to which the children bonded with the new pet was a major determinant of whether pet ownership influenced social interactions.

Having a pet from birth did not appear to influence the socialization behaviors, leading the researchers to conclude that the arrival of a pet when a child is old enough to recognize the addition may be critical.

The new study appears in the August issue of the journal PLoS One.

"To my knowledge, this is the first time that a study has demonstrated that the adoption of a pet is linked to social improvements for individuals with autism," says researcher Marine Grandgeorge, PhD, of France's Hopital de Bohars.

Large Pet Studies Needed

The study was small and Grandgeorge says larger, more rigorously designed studies are needed to confirm the findings.

And she warns against getting a pet without considering whether the move is appropriate for the entire family.

Alycia Halladay, PhD, who is director of environmental research for the education and advocacy group Autism Speaks, agrees.

"We certainly don't want families who are already stressed to get the idea that they need to add a pet to their family if that pet is not really wanted," she says.

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