Within this symposium are five studies examining aspects of HAI related to human well-being; these studies are cross-cutting by vulnerable population, research methodology, and therapeutic role of animals. The initial two studies examine aspects of AAI research related to children. The first study examines the effects of service dogs for children with autism spectrum disorder and their caregivers. Preliminary results suggest that autism service dogs benefit children's sleep; minimal changes were observed in autism-related behavior and family functioning. In response to a national call in HAI literature to improve and refine physiologic measures to better understand change mechanisms in HAI, the second study focuses on advancing measurement of physiologic indicators of stress and bonding in equine therapy with children via feasibility testing. A novel method of salivary biomarker data collection was successfully piloted, enabling ground-breaking research on concordance of stress and relaxation hormones across triads of children with anxiety, therapy horses, and horse handler volunteers.
The next two studies examine how animals may impact adults living with mental illness. The third study explores mental health provider views of psychiatric service dogs and emotional support animals (ESAs) as a complementary treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Exploratory findings suggest providers view such animals as an important ancillary intervention in conjunction with exposure-based therapies and medication, however, having the animals was also associated with increased stressors for veterans related to accessing housing and public spaces. The fourth study qualitatively explored the role that ESAs played in reducing a common and harmful consequence of living with serious mental illness and known health risk factor--loneliness. Findings illuminate processes through which ESAs helped to alleviate loneliness.
The final study examines how pet attachment intersects with social support and moderates the relationship between sexual and gender minority status and the likelihood of delaying or avoiding COVID-19 testing. This study found increased likelihood of intent to delay or avoid COVID-19 testing among sexual and gender minority individuals with high pet attachment and low or moderate social support. These studies empirically connect HAI to social work practice with a range of vulnerable populations. Findings inform advocacy efforts related to: enhanced research AAI with children; animals as needed disability accommodations for people living with mental illness; and the need for HAI-inclusive strategies to improve healthcare access for people with pets and limited social support. Continued social work research on HAI issues is needed to empirically guide practices and advocacy efforts inclusive of HAI as both a strength and stressor within clients lives.