Owning a pet dog can significantly reduce stress in families with a child with autism according to new research.
Carried out by a team of researchers at the University of Lincoln, UK, and funded by the US-based Human Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI) Foundation, the study also found that a pet dog can reduce the number of dysfunctional interactions between parent and child and improve functioning within the family as a whole.
Previous studies have already shown some of the emotional and mental health benefits of owning a dog, with an 2015 18-month US study of 643 children finding that those who had a dog at home had lower anxiety scores than those who did not, while a study published earlier this year found that seniors who owned a dog benefited from increased physical activity through dog walking, increased social benefits, and fewer trips to the doctors.
However more specific research into the benefits for those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is still limited, with this latest study the first to look at the long-term benefits of owning a dog, rather than a specifically trained assistance dog, for those with ASD.
To carry out the research, the team recruited families with a child with autism who had been included in a previous study that looked at the short-term effect of having a pet dog in the family. To assess any long-term benefits the follow-up study was carried out two and a half years later.
The study included 22 families with a pet dog and 15 control familes who had no dog. All families were asked to self report on stress levels and interactions within the family.
The research showed that in families with a dog, even years after acquiring the pet, the stress levels associated with caring for a child with autism continued to decrease, with 20% of parents moving from clinically high to normal stress levels. However the same reduction was not seen in families without a dog.
In addition, a significant positive relationship was observed between the parenting stress of the child's main carer and their attachment to the dog, highlighting the importance of the bond between the two.
Having a pet dog also signficantly improved overall family functioning in comparison to the control group families, with a reduction in dysfunctional parent-child interactions only seen in those families with dogs. Like the parenting stress levels, these reductions also lasted for years after the dog joined the family.
HABRI Executive Director Steven Feldman commented on the findings saying, "Parents of children with autism can experience increased anxiety and stress, and now we have strong scientific evidence to show that pets can have positive effects on these quality-of-life issues. Families with an autistic child should consider pet ownership as a way to improve family harmony."
The findings can be found published online in the American Journal of Veterinary Behavior.