Key Topics in Human-Animal Interaction (HAI) and Research-Informed Social Work
Research exploring the benefits and liabilities of human-animal interaction (HAI) is still relatively new, however, potentially useful empirical findings substantiating the various impacts HAI can have on human well-being are accumulating within and across social work practice areas. Consideration of such HAI-related empirical findings have been increasingly recognized as significant in informing social work practice and education (Tedeschi, Fitchett, & Molidor, 2005; Siefert, & Swain-Gant, 2010). According to Risley-Curtiss (2010), three dimensions of HAI highly relevant to social work include: 1) social support offered by companion animals for individuals and within family systems; 2) therapeutic benefits of companion animals; and 3) connections between violence toward animals and violence toward humans. Each of the five papers in this symposium examines empirical aspects of one or more of these HAI areas.
Methods and Findings
The methodological diversity of papers in this symposium exemplifies the epistemological range of those engaged in social work research within and across HAI areas. The first two papers examine issues related to animals within family systems in the context of domestic violence. The first paper utilizes mixed methods to examine how companion animal policies among domestic violence shelters may facilitate and/or pose barriers to exiting domestic violence situations. Unfortunately, effects of witnessing domestic violence and animal cruelty can persist long after leaving the situation. The second paper uses hierarchical multiple linear regression to analyze the relationship between exposure to intimate partner violence and concomitant animal cruelty and maternal reports of children’s internalizing behaviors and trauma symptoms. Animal cruelty exposure accounted for a significant proportion of variance in children’s depression, anxiety and trauma symptoms.
Remaining papers address empirical aspects of therapeutic interventions and support related to HAI. To date, no systematic review has examined the overall effect of animal-assisted therapy (AAT) with maltreated youth. The third paper offers a systematic review and meta-analysis of AAT effects among children with a history of maltreatment; findings suggest AAT can be beneficial for this population. Measuring intervention effects related to HAI can be particularly difficult due to a lack of empirically-validated instruments. The fourth study provides a rigorous Rasch analysis of the Children’s Treatment of Animals Questionnaire(CTQA; Thompson & Gullone, 2003), a measure commonly used to evaluate interventions targeted at decreasing aggression and fostering empathy toward animals. While challenging to operationalize, informal support derived through HAI may foster unique benefits. The fifth paper applied principles from the Cochrane Qualitative Methods Group to generate a systematic qualitative review of research relating to how living with a companion animal may impact individuals with serious mental illness (SMI). ‘Connection’ and ‘responsibility’ were the most frequent cross-study themes; substantiating content related to these suggested living with companion animals may be a protective factor in suicidality for some individuals with SMI.
This symposium is the first at SSWR to explicitly focus on emerging areas of research related to HAI and social work practice. Attendees will gain a clear understanding of key HAI areas and related implications for research-informed social work practices and policies.