The Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS) is proud to announce the successful applicants to its 2020 round of research funding. This is the first of three annual funding rounds planned for 2020, 2021 and 2022. The aim is to support research which furthers current understanding of the human-animal bond.
The human-animal bond is a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that is influenced by behaviours that are essential to the health and well being of both. This includes emotional, psychological, and physical interactions of people, animals, and the environment. Projects to this round of funding were prioritised if they focussed on animal assisted interventions, particularly with children, explored the human-companion animal relationship or utilised cross-disciplinary working.
Five pump priming grants were awarded to the following projects:
- A framework for understanding the impact of dog ownership and its related activities on the mental health of autistic adults (Ana Maria Barcelos, University of Lincoln, £9,771).
- SAFE – Safe Animal Friendly Eldercare. Developing a comprehensive multi-species risk management tool to enable people to bring their companion animals into high needs residential aged care (Dr Janette Young, University of South Australia, £10,000).
- Exploring the use of animal assisted interventions in educational settings: A mixed method approach (Dr Lauren Finka, Nottingham Trent University, £9,952.30).
- Physiological assessment of the effects of human-animal interaction on social anxiety in adolescence (Dr. Megan Mueller, Tufts University, £9,982).
- How best to say goodbye? Exploring new ways of enfranchising childhood experiences of grief following the loss of nonhuman life or the termination of a nonhuman supportive relationship (Professor Samantha Hurn, University of Exeter, £9,989.34).
In response to the ongoing covid-19 crisis, an additional project was funded which will examine the impact of the pandemic on companion animal relinquishment and abandonment (Dr Catherine Reeve, Queen’s University Belfast, £9,285).
SCAS also funded the open access publication of a systematic review examining current evidence on the effects on assistance dogs on psychosocial health and wellbeing (Kerri Rodriguez, Purdue University, £1,372).
Acknowledgements: SCAS would like to thank the legacy donors who made this funding possible, the lay panel members who contributed to the review process reviewers, the research working group and the SCAS Board.
A framework for understanding the impact of dog ownership and its related activities on the mental health of autistic adults
(Ana Maria Barcelos, University of Lincoln)
Mental health problems occur in 25% of the UK adult population and 80% of autistic individuals. Dog ownership has been associated with several psychological benefits, particularly decrease in anxiety and depression, two of the most common mental health problems affecting individuals on the autism spectrum. The mechanisms responsible for these improvements in dog owners are still not clear, but there are suggestions that specific dog human related activities play a major role on this, e.g. walking and petting the dog. Dog ownership per se is not a very reliable indicator of better mental health, since dog owners are engaged in different type of activities.
The aim of this study is to develop a comprehensive framework of the activities performed by adult autistic dog owners with their dogs which lead to specific well-being outcomes as perceived by these individuals. Due to the descriptive breadth of this investigation and its uniqueness, qualitative research methods will be used to describe the theoretical framework for future quantitative hypothesis testing. Autistic dog owners from the UK will be invited to take part in audio recorded focus group sessions (group discussions to gather information about a topic). The sessions will be conducted at the University of Lincoln by the main researcher, who has extensive experience in qualitative research. Based on our previous experience, six sessions with four to six participants each will be necessary to identify the full range of activities involved and their perceived effects. Transcriptions of the audio records will be organised in themes and coded using recognised methods to generate a list of activities and their impact on the mental health of autistic adults. This framework will be of great importance for developing and recommending dog-assisted interventions, that can be used therapeutically for this group.
Outcomes will include open access scientific publication of the results and the development of a web-based resource of the key findings and recommendations through the University’s Autism Research Innovation Centre.
SAFE – Safe Animal Friendly Eldercare. Developing a comprehensive multi-species risk management tool to enable people to bring their companion animals into high needs residential aged care
(Dr Janette Young, University of South Australia)
This research aims to develop a multi-species (eg dogs, cats, birds, small mammals) risk management framework for use in communal residential aged care settings. The framework will map the diverse range of pet animals, risks, and risk mitigation actions that can enable humans and animals to be safe in these settings. The aim is to maximise the chance of people entering aged care keeping their pets and thereby enhance wellbeing of older people at an extremely stressful life stage and reduce the number of older person’s pets who become homeless or may even be euthanised when their human companion is no longer able to live independently.
While the evidence that pets are crucial in the lives of many older people is growing, there is a gap in recognising and responding to this reality. In particular few aged care residences, especially for frail elders in need of high level care, accommodate these relationships. This is commonly due to fears of contamination, cross-species infection and consequent litigation should anyone (human or animal) be adversely affected. However there are a range of other risk factors (eg staff and other resident’s fears, allergies, risks to animals) that need to be considered and planned for.
The research will use the Delphi technique of multiple rounds of consultation with subject experts (ageing, aged care, animals) to identify the key risks and their remediations. This will support aged care residences to safely incorporate older persons And their loved companion animals at a time when both need each other. A small reference group of older people, aged care providers and human and animal research academics will identify and support key subject experts across ageing and multi-species expertise, and maximise strategic dissemination of the final research output via professional, organisational and other forums and online postings.
While this research has a focus on companion animals/personal pets of older people the understandings developed will also be of use more broadly and able to encompass communal, visiting and other companion animals in residential aged care.
RESEARCH PUBLICATION: The Safe Animal Friendly Environments (SAFE) Tool
Through 2020 and 2021 an Australian team of human and animal experts, academics, researchers, community consultants and veterinarians worked together to develop the Safe Animal Friendly Environments (SAFE) tool. This is a risk management tool aimed at supporting the safe inclusion of personal pets (that is, those that people have pre-residential relationships with) in communal residential aged care.
The framework enables users to assess the risks that both humans and animals may encounter in these settings. It encompasses the major species groups kept as pets: dogs, cats, birds, fish, small mammals). The level and impact of these risks and methods to reduce them to acceptable levels is detailed. Very few risks are unmanageable and SAFE offers the opportunity to carefully explore the potential for co-residence when this is desired or appropriate for both human and animal members of these relationships.
Exploring the use of animal assisted interventions in educational settings: A mixed method approach
(Dr Lauren Finka, Nottingham Trent University)
This project will investigate the current use of animal assisted interventions (AAI) in schools within the UK, assessing their uptake, implementation and impact on the experiences of both children and dogs. Using a multi-disciplinary, mixed methods approach, this project combines the expertise of a companion animal welfare scientist and human-developmental psychologist specialising in children’s literacy.
The use of AAI in educational settings are increasing in their popularity. In the UK, schemes such as Read2Dogs are used in schools to support children who have behavioural and emotional difficulties, as well as to improve general learning and literacy. Whilst schools report anecdotally the benefits of these schemes to their pupils, there is yet a quality evidence-base to support these assumptions. Most importantly, there is also a lack of clear evidence-based frameworks to guide their safe and effective implementation. Additionally, the emphasis on these schemes is their benefit to children, with little formal consideration given to their impact on dogs involved in these sessions, or how to protect the wellbeing of both parties during interactions.
In order to understand current AAI activity in schools, an online survey will be distributed nationally to UK schools. Ten schools will then be selected from the survey for more in-depth qualitative work, which will include conducting small focus groups with relevant teaching staff, as well as direct observations of AAI sessions. These data will then be used to:
- Determine current AAI uptake and their types, as well as identify potential barriers where no AAI are used.
- Assess current teacher perceptions of the impact of AAI on children’s mental wellbeing, learning and literacy.
- Assess how AAI sessions are practically managed, considering both child and animal parties, and focusing on the positive impacts on the child’s and dog’s enjoyment, as well as potential risks.
These investigations will advance our understanding of the current use, perceptions of and structure of AAI sessions, and how children and dogs are being managed within them. This will then help to design future guidance on responsible and effective use of AAI programmes in schools, and could be incorporated within the AAI SCACS Code of Practise for the UK.
Physiological assessment of the effects of human-animal interaction on social anxiety in adolescence
(Dr. Megan Mueller, Tufts University)
Social anxiety disorder is the most prevalent anxiety disorder in the United States and can have significant negative consequences for mental health and well-being. Adolescence is a particularly critical period for the onset of social anxiety, as it is a period of social transitions and stressors. Therefore, it is important to identify protective factors within the environment that can prevent and/or reduce the effects of social anxiety disorder in addition to existing evidence-based treatments. An increasing body of research is finding that relationships with pets, or human-animal interaction (HAI), can be a particularly effective method of reducing anxiety. Pets can be an important source of social and emotional support for adolescents, and these
relationships may contribute to resiliency during social stress. Recent research has demonstrated that the presence of a pet dog reduces the effects of acute social stressors for youth. Furthermore, attachment to a pet can serve as an emotional buffer during times of stress and is associated with the utilization of adaptive social coping skills in adolescence. These studies support our hypothesis that leveraging a relationship with a pet will be an effective therapeutic intervention for social anxiety in adolescents.
However, despite the promise for HAI as a method of addressing social anxiety, there is a lack of research measuring the specific psychophysiological effects of interacting with a pet on social anxiety for youth. This study aims to test the feasibility of a methodology for assessing physiological responses to pet interactions in real-life scenarios, using a wearable wristband device. The results from this study will provide previously unavailable data on the physiological effects of interacting with an animal on physiological responses in the context of social anxiety. This project will lay the groundwork for future longitudinal multi-method research focused on understanding how pet ownership may be a particularly cost-effective strategy for supporting resiliency for youth with social anxiety.
How best to say goodbye? Exploring new ways of enfranchising childhood experiences of grief following the loss of nonhuman life or the termination of a nonhuman supportive relationship
(Professor Samantha Hurn, University of Exeter)
Companion animals are widely regarded as family members in much of the developed world. However, while grief following the death or loss of human family members is socially acknowledged and validated, grief following the loss of companion animals is not always recognised in the same way and may even be trivialised. Such cases constitute what psychologists term ‘disenfranchised grief’. When grief is disenfranchised, the bereaved are more likely to experience prolonged, damaging psychological distress. Because children are often closely bonded with companion or support animals, they will likely experience significant distress following the deaths of their nonhuman friends or the termination of a support relationship. Existing research on pet keeping suggests that caring for companion animals teaches children vital skills including empathy and responsibility. It is also through the loss of companion animals that many children learn about death. However, like companion animals, children are legal dependants. While they may help with caring for pets in life, children are seldom included in decision-making processes around end of life care for pets. In many contexts they will be actively shielded from the reality of a companion animal’s ailing health or imminent demise, and may only become aware of their pet’s death after the event.
The proposed project builds on existing research which recognises that supporting and validating the bereaved in the run up to, during and following the loss of life or the end of a supportive relationship can improve their mental health and wellbeing. Little existing research has considered children as disenfranchised grievers following pet or support animal loss, and the impact of that loss on their mental wellbeing. The project therefore aims to i) explore experiences of a sample of children who have lost a nonhuman companion or support animal; ii) ascertain when, how and why/why not children are involved in end of life or relationship discussions, decision making and/or care practices (including euthanasia); iii) how they and their carers perceive their experiences have impacted on their wellbeing; and iv) whether or not additional or alternative measures might benefit them or other children in similar situations in the future.
A systematic review examining current evidence on the effects on assistance dogs on psychosocial health and wellbeing
(Dr Kerri Rodriguez, Purdue University)
Abstract to follow.