Sunday 30 September 2012

Pets win (prosocial) prizes?

Miss Ellie Dog @Wikipedia
Pets have never really been a great part of my childhood it has to be said. Aside from a cat allergy which sort of ruled out any would-be Top Cat staying at ours, the family home just wasn't graced with enough space to accommodate other animal companions.

I did have a goldfish called George for a short period of time; that is until he/she(?) passed away and went to the great WC in the sky. Sad memories indeed.

This lack of animal contact during my childhood is probably why I am a little ambivalent towards children keeping pets at home (that and a very unfounded phobia of T.gondii) whilst, at the same time, being thankful for school pets who undoubtedly 'earn their keep' in the petting stakes.

Where autism is in mind however some recent research by Grandgeorge and colleagues* (full-text) suggests that pet arrival might very well have prosocial prizes.

The study is open-access so only a brief summary needed:

  • From quite a large bank of participants (N=260), two studies were carried out on two very much smaller groups: study 1: arrival of a pet at age 5 years (n=12) vs. never owned a pet (n=12); study 2: owned a pet since birth (n=8) vs. never owned a pet (n=8).
  • Alongside a questionnaire on human-pet relationships, parents of participants undertook questioning based on the ADI-R (see recent post) across two time periods (T0 and T1) primarily unaware of the reason for study participation.
  • Results: based on study 1, pet arrival between the ages of 4-5 years was associated with significant changes to 2 algorithm items on the ADI-R (53) offering to share and (55) offers comfort which "reflect prosocial behaviors". Having a pet from birth (study 2) did not seem to bestow the same changes.

There are a few obvious caveats to these findings based on the sample size and sole reliance on ADI-R to assess change at the same time of pet arrival. As with all studies of association, people don't generally live in a vacuum outside of real life, so one has to be slightly cautious about linking just pet arrival to the reported changes in behaviour particularly over quite a long period of time.

All that being said, I am really quite interested in these findings. I know some have talked about the whole theory of mind (ToM) issue as accounting for the results (see here). Whilst this remains a possibility, I have to say that I still remain unconvinced of a major link between animal associated prosocial behaviours and perspective-taking or vice-versa in this particular instance. Such cold hard psychology fails to take into account the concept of 'enjoyment' in having a pet and also the responsibility that comes with ownership outside of trying to understand the mental state or what their pet might be thinking.

On the other hand, I do rather like the idea that stress, and importantly a reduction/moderation in stress and anxiety responses following the introduction of a pet might be part and parcel of the results seen as per suggestions like this one from Virués-Ortega & Buela-Casal**. If there's one thing we know about autism, it's that stress and anxiety are very often in the background.

This study also reminds me of an earlier blog post concerning some research on animal magic and the amygdala which suggested that the amygdala might the place to be when it comes to animal identification and recognition. Exactly what role the amygdala might play is still unclear in autism but one can speculate that neuronal functioning may have potentially been affected by pet companionship in a sort of 'pet brain training scenario'. Let's wait for more evidence of this first though.

Whilst perhaps being a more outlandish link, my post on the appeal behind Thomas the Tank Engine to some cases of autism might also be relevant. Think about it: cats, dogs, hamsters, guinea pigs, etc. are fairly uncomplicated creatures by human standards. They don't talk (aside from the odd 'sausages' here and there), they don't use a wide variety of facial or other gestures, and in most cases, they pretty much like, and are responsive to, interaction without other complications. Just a thought.

I would like to see more investigation on this topic with autism in mind; a call echoed by an even more recent review of the use of assistance and therapy dogs for autism***. I hold back from suggesting that every child with autism should be automatically handed a pet at aged 4 or 5 years given that not every child probably wants a pet, but for some it might be a useful aid to their development. Dare I even suggest that the introduction of a pet to the family home might also have some knock-on effects to immune functioning as per articles like this one by Tse and Horner**** (full-text) in light of autism and the immune system research or am I just being a little bit silly?


* Grandgeorge M. et al. Does pet arrival trigger prosocial behaviors in individuals with autism? PLoS ONE. 2012; 7: e41739.

** Virués-Ortega J & Buela-Casal G. Psychophysiological effects of human-animal interaction: theoretical issues and long-term interaction effects. Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease. 2006; 194: 52-57.

*** Berry A. et al. Use of assistance and therapy dogs for children with autism spectrum disorders: a critical review of the current evidence. Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine. September 2012.

**** Tse H. & Horner AA. Allergen tolerance versus the allergic march: the hygiene hypothesis revisited. Current Allery & Asthma Reports. 2008; 8: 475-463.

---------- Grandgeorge M, Tordjman S, Lazartigues A, Lemonnier E, Deleau M, & Hausberger M (2012). Does pet arrival trigger prosocial behaviors in individuals with autism? PloS one, 7 (8) PMID: 22870246

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