The Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS) is proud to announce the successful applicants to its 2022 round of research funding. This is the final year of three annual funding rounds which supports research into furthering the 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 related to the role of pets in the management of mental and/or physical health conditions.
Six pump priming grants were awarded to the following projects (abstracts can be found at the bottom of the page):
- Therapeutic Companionship: Canine Companionship and Ehlers Danlos Syndrome
(Danielle Stephens-Lewis, University of Gloucester, UK £9,924)
- No pets! Young people’s transitions to campus living and the importance of the human-animal bond for mental health and wellbeing
(Daniel Allen, Keele University, UK £9,990.40)
- Pandemic Pals? Exploring the impact of puppy acquisition during the COVID-19 Pandemic upon the mental wellbeing of families with children
(Rowena Packer, Royal Veterinary College, UK £9,896)
- Pet ownership among young people: associations with mental health, self-harm and other risk behaviours
(Emily Vicary, University of Manchester, UK £9,995)
- The Human-Animal Bond in Young People’s Self-Management of Mental Health Difficulties
(Roxanne Hawkins, University of Edinburgh, UK £10,000)
- Old friends: a preliminary assessment of the implications of current UK care home pet policies for the health and wellbeing of elderly individuals and their companion animals and the obstacles to making more care homes pet-friendly
(Samantha Hurn, University of Exeter, UK £9,963)
In addition, one grant to support open access publication of research was awarded to:
- Recognizing pet personality impacts on human pain management
(Janette Young, University of South Australia, £1,500)
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.
Therapeutic Companionship: Canine Companionship and Ehlers Danlos Syndrome
Canine companionship has been found to benefit human physical health, as well as alleviate anxiety and depression. Such benefits are also echoed among individuals with long term conditions, with reports of better pain management among those with canine companionship. However, results are inconsistent with level of bonding, human characteristics and perceived appropriate canine behaviour seemingly impacting such benefits.
Nonetheless, one particular condition where such companionship may prove beneficial is Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS). Considered a rare condition with an array of symptomology, EDS currently has no clear treatment or cure. As such, pain and psychological management are key targets for long-term management. Subsequently, this research project proposed two studies in aim of considering the impact of canine companionship on the health outcomes of those diagnosed with EDS. A quantitative survey will assess multiple aspects of human health and wellbeing, across those who do and do not have canine companions. Additionally, individual characteristics, attachment type and perceived canine behaviours will also be assessed. This will be followed by interviews with participants diagnosed with EDS as well as having a canine companion for a minimum of a year. Interviews will be completed in exploring the benefits and challenges associated with living with the condition, and how canine companionship may have impacted this.
In addition to providing further insight into the underexplored area of human-canine bonding, completion of this research will enable the identification of possibilities for intervention in the management of physical and psychological health outcomes, whilst providing more nuanced understanding of the impact of canine companionship and behaviour on human health and wellbeing, and canine welfare.
No pets! Young people’s transitions to campus living and the importance of the human-animal bond for mental health and wellbeing
It has been well documented that there is a mental health crisis among university students in the UK. However, there has been significantly less progress in addressing this issue. This project will consider how interaction with companion animals can provide a pathway for improving student mental health and wellbeing, using Keele University as a case study.
Pandemic Pals? Exploring the impact of puppy acquisition during the COVID-19 Pandemic upon the mental wellbeing of families with children
The COVID-19 Pandemic has had profound, negative impacts upon human mental health, with effects upon adults and children/adolescents well documented globally. A strong media focus on the potential benefits of dogs to human mental health during the Pandemic is thought to have contributed to the ‘Pandemic Puppy’ phenomenon, an international surge in puppy acquisition. Since 2020, the ‘Pandemic Puppies’ research team at RVC have studied a large cohort of UK owners who purchased a puppy aged <16 weeks from a breeder during the Pandemic. We discovered that Pandemic Puppy owners were significantly more likely to acquire a puppy with the aim of improving their/their family’s mental health, to provide companionship for their children, and were significantly more likely to have children in their households, compared with ‘pre-pandemic’ 2019 puppy-purchasers. Existing evidence suggests that dog acquisition results in reductions in loneliness for owners within three months of acquisition, but to date, no published studies have explored the short or long-term effects of puppy acquisition specifically during the Pandemic on child or adult mental health. In addition, the outcomes of puppy acquisitions explicitly aimed at improving companionship and mental health for children and their families during the Pandemic are not yet known, for both owners (e.g. changes in mental health status), dogs (e.g. homing status) or both members of these dyads (e.g. the dog-owner relationship). We therefore propose to conduct a mixed-methods study on the impact of ‘Pandemic Puppy’ acquisition during the 2020-21 phase of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the mental health of families with children in the UK, compared to households with existing dogs acquired in 2019, recruited from the existing ‘Pandemic Puppies’ study population (>8000 owners in total). An online survey exploring (i) mental wellbeing of children/adolescents, (ii) dog-child relationships, and (iii) expectations vs. realities of dog ownership will be created using closed and open-text questions to facilitate mixed methods analysis, including advanced statistical modelling of predictors of (i) and (ii) and reflexive thematic analysis of text-based responses to (iii). Results will be disseminated via a wide network of animal behaviourists, veterinary surgeons, rehoming organisations, and HAI researchers.
Pet ownership among young people: associations with mental health, self-harm and other risk behaviours
Background: Self-harm is considered to be an indicator of extreme distress or a manifestation of a mental illness. Young people, aged 16-24, are thought to be the most at risk for engaging in repeated self-harm behaviours such as cutting the skin, breaking bones and ingesting toxic substances. Previous research highlights the benefits of informal support in the management of self-harm habits, specifically high-quality social networks decrease the risk of repeated self-injury. Pets are generally an overlooked facet within these support networks. A recent study highlighted how pets can increase personal pleasure, prevent suicide attempts and reduce the urge to engage in self-harm for adults with diagnosed mental health conditions. However, only less than 5% of this sample was comprised of young people, meaning the true impact of pets on the management of mental health conditions and self-harm remains uncertain in young people.
Aim: To develop an understanding of the relationships young people have with their pets and how these relationships can help with the management of mental illness as well as reduce self-harm.
Design: We will work with young people to develop an understanding of how they experience mental health and self-harm and whether or not this is impacted by pet ownership. We will use online surveys and in-person interviews to collect this information.
PPI: A young person with mental health problems will assist in interpreting the data from the study. We will also invite 3 young people with experience of mental health difficulties and self-harm to join an advisory group to guide the research.
Dissemination: Working with the PPI advisory group, we will produce study summaries to raise awareness of how pets can assist young people in the management of mental health conditions and self-harm. To maximise the impact of the study, we will publicise findings via social media and blogs and publish findings in academic journals.
The Human-Animal Bond in Young People’s Self-Management of Mental Health Difficulties
Young adulthood is considered a peak age for the onset of mental health difficulties with approximately 75% of mental health disorders being diagnosed between the ages of 18 and 25 years. Anxiety and depression are the most common, and the problems that emerge in young adulthood can persist long-term over the life course. Methods of prevention or successful self-management of symptoms are therefore important to identify. The Mental Health Foundation now recommends pets as a source of improving mental health, yet very little research has examined the psychological implications of the human-pet bond for young adults from the general population in the United Kingdom. Pets cannot ‘fix’ mental health problems, but they can play an important role in the self-management of mental health and prevent worsening symptoms. This, however, may depend on human-pet attachment type (secure vs insecure), pet type (dogs vs cats), psychological and behavioural compatibility, and the absence of pet behavioural problems. Moreover, a secure human-pet attachment may have mutual benefits, promoting positive human wellbeing, and pet welfare. The current study, therefore, aims to explore these important yet understudied variables (attachment type, pet type, compatibility, pet behaviour and welfare) that may underpin the benefits of pets for depression and anxiety in this young at-risk UK population. This study will use mixed methodologies adopting both quantitative methods (questionnaire with validated psychological measures) and qualitative methods (interviews to explore lived experience) providing a nuanced understanding of the human-pet bond for mental health. This study will provide valuable insight into the value of pets in young people’s lives as well as individual differences in the potential capability of pets to both reduce or exacerbate mental health symptomology in this population. The findings will have relevance for the development and evaluation of mental health interventions and treatment protocols aimed at young adults with depression and anxiety, where pet attachment may prove to be a useful tool for mental health improvement. This study may also identify factors that may lead to negative impacts on mental health and pet welfare that will be important for future prevention and intervention.
Old friends: a preliminary assessment of the implications of current UK care home pet policies for the health and wellbeing of elderly individuals and their companion animals and the obstacles to making more care homes pet-friendly
The relationships between elderly individuals and their companion animals are comparatively under-researched, despite widespread recognition that for many older people, these relationships are essential for alleviating loneliness and providing social support. Yet when an individual ages they often find it difficult to care for their companion animals. If they have to go into residential care, they will often have to relinquish their pets. Existing research (McNicholas 2008) found that 60% of UK care homes required residents to relinquish their pets, while those deemed ‘pet friendly’ often excluded cats and dogs. Recommendations arising from this previous research included promoting awareness of the importance of pets to older people, and conducting appropriate assessments of the risks associated with pets in care homes to inform policy.
In 2020 The Blue Cross issued a call for UK care homes to have more transparent pet policies. This call was in recognition of the negative impacts on elderly individuals unable to make informed decisions regarding residential care and the possible options for relocating with their pets. In response to the Blue Cross call and recommendations from previous research in this area, the project ‘Old Friends’ will conduct a preliminary survey of UK care home policies, to assess changes in this sector in the years since the 2008 research was completed. Researchers will also generate new data, interviewing care home staff and managers to assess their perceptions of risks versus benefits of allowing residents to be accompanied by their pets. Finally, because all research conducted to date has focussed on human experiences, the team will also conduct surveys and interviews with staff at relevant animal welfare NGOs (e.g. Cinnamon Trust) who take in companion animals relinquished due to care home pet policies, as well as ethological observations of companion animals living with their humans in care home settings, plus those who have been relinquished. The stories of a sample of relinquished animals and their former owners, as well as those who have been able to stay together in a care home context will be documented and compared.
Recognizing pet personality impacts on human pain management
This application is to support funding of the submission of a student Honours research project investigating the role of pets in the management of chronic pain to a planned peer reviewed special edition entitled “Reconceiving (WHO) Health Promotion to encompass Human-Animal Relationships” in an invited special edition of an Open Access Journal.*
This research explored the potential of pets as a complimentary pain management strategy for chronic pain sufferers. A mixed methods study, involving semi-structured interviews informed the development of a survey. Both sought to deeply explore the mechanisms by which pets influence chronic pain experiences. The research confirmed findings from other research on the roles of pets but also offered novel insights. In particular the connections between perceived pet personality and pain experiences were revealed with characteristics of extraversion and agreeableness in pets being linked to more positive pain outcomes.
For people who experience chronic pain, pet ownership may be therapeutic, however careful thought as to the needs and personalities of animals engaged with is needed. For health professionals, and people with pain themselves, simply “prescribing pets” for pain management overlooks the subjective complexity of both pain and human-animal relationships. Health promotion messages in the pain field can begin to draw on these more nuanced understandings facilitating better quality of life for both humans and animals.
The initial marked and assessed student paper will be updated and targeted more specifically to the focus of the special edition.