Accessibility statement

Human-Animal Interaction and Mental Health

Person holding a cat

Human-Animal Interaction (HAI) is a broad term that describes a wide spectrum of relationships and interactions between animals and humans. At its centre, it recognises the concept of the Human-Animal Bond, defined as potentially mutually beneficial relationships between animals and humans that can influence the health and wellbeing of both. Together with our internal and external partners, we aim to be a driving force for developing excellent collaborative research on HAI and mental health.

Further Theme Information

Evidence on the potentially positive impact of HAIs (for example between assistance and companion animals and their owners) on physical, psychological, and social health has been steadily developing in recent decades. Additionally, as part of HAIs, animal-assisted interventions (AAIs) cover an emerging therapeutic approach that indicates promise in a variety of areas, including neurodevelopmental disorders, rehabilitation, and dementia. AAIs are defined as interventions that ‘intentionally include or incorporate animals as part of a therapeutic or ameliorative process or milieu’. Despite the growing popularity of the notion that ‘animals are good for us’ and rapidly evolving practice aiming to harness the benefits of HAI for therapeutic purposes, the evidence base remains relatively scarce and is often characterised by methodological flaws (see BMJ editorial). 

Our aim is to develop a comprehensive portfolio of interdisciplinary, collaborative research with a wide range of stakeholders to generate high quality evidence related to the effectiveness, cost-effectiveness, and underlying mechanisms of HAI in mental health populations across the life span and across health, social care, and community settings. In line with the core principle that AAIs/HAIs need to benefit both humans and animals, the further development of knowledge related to animal welfare, training and selection for HAIs will be at the heart of all our research activities.

This research theme covers all research related to HAIs and health and wellbeing, with a special interest in mental health. It is a dynamic interdisciplinary theme within MHARG that is jointly led by applied health researchers at the University of York (with a focus on mental health), and animal behaviour, cognition, and welfare experts at the University of Lincoln. 

For more information, or if you’d like to discuss project ideas, please contact the Research Theme lead Dr Elena Ratschen. You can also follow us on Twitter: @HumanAnimalYork.

Projects

AD ASTRA (2023-2025) - NIHR-funded Programme Development Grant

Title: Adjunctive dog-assisted interventions and research: Extending methodological guidelines for robust intervention research and preparing the grounds for a definitive trial.

Summary: Develop evidence-based guidelines to conduct robust intervention research in the field of CAIs and mental health. Longer term, we aim to use these guidelines to design, conduct, and report a pragmatic RCT to determine the clinical and cost effectiveness of one of the most promising adjunctive CAIs in a mental health priority area.  

If you have any background or experience in dog-assisted interventions and would like to be involved in this research, please visit the project website or contact Dr Elena Ratschen 

Family Dog Service (2023-2024) 

Title: 'Exploring the impact of the Family Dog Service on families of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and their wider social networks' 

Summary: Developing and implementing effective interventions to support families with children with autism has been identified as a priority for UK mental health research. The potential positive impact of specialist trained autism assistance dogs (AADs) on the lives of children and young people living with autism and their families is increasingly well described in the literature. However, training AADs is extremely resource-intensive, and waiting lists for families in the UK are long. Dogs for Good (DfG), the leading organisation for the training of AADs in the UK, have designed a service for families that have at least one child with autism and do not have an assistance dog, but have or are planning to acquire a pet dog. The goal of the service is to enable families to develop and proactively enhance a strong, positive relationship with their family dog, thus hoping to harness many of the benefits seen for AADs. The aim of this study is to explore the perceived impact of the Family Dog Service and to identify potential underlying mechanisms.

Please contact Dr Emily Shoesmith if you would like to discuss more about this project.

Dogs for Good Assistance Dogs (2023-2024)

Title: The impact of assistance dogs on quality of life in adults and children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or a physical disability: A mixed-methods service evaluation

Summary: While there has been research investigating the impact of assistance dogs on various populations, less is known about the potential translation of these benefits to an assistance dog placed with an individual with ASD and/or a physical disability on a permanent basis. Moreover, no published findings have explored the lived experience of assistance dog placement in adults and children with ASD and/or a physical disability in the UK. As there is an increasing demand for the placement of assistance dogs, and clearly identified unmet needs of people living with ASD and/or a physical disability, it is timely and important to expand the evidence base to support the benefits of assistance dog placements for these populations. The aim of our service evaluation was to explore the goals and expectations of being matched with an assistance dog prior to placement, and how these assistance dogs may impact the quality of life of adults and children with ASD and/or a physical disability and their families over an extended period of time.

Robotic animal interventions within dementia care (2021-2023)

Title: Robotic animal interventions for people with dementia: ‘what works’ in inpatient dementia care

Summary: A review of animal-assisted and robotic animal interventions for people with dementia was conducted to understand how these interventions may ‘work’ within a range of dementia care settings. The next stage of the study was designed to expand current understanding of robotic animal interventions within inpatient dementia care. Using principles from realist methodology, interviews were conducted with healthcare professionals, participants with dementia and their relatives to explore the delivery and receipt of a robotic animal intervention. Observations of sessions were conducted to triangulate and corroborate interview data. An initial programme theory was developed to explain how robotic animal interventions ‘may work’ within this setting.

Please contact Dr Emily Shoesmith if you like to discuss more about the project.

INTACT (2020-2023)

Title: Interactions with and attachment to animals in the Covid-19 pandemic

Summary: We aimed to investigate links between mental health and loneliness, companion animal ownership, the human-animal bond, and human-animal interactions; and to explore animal owners’ perceptions related to the role of their animals during lockdown. A cross-sectional online survey of 5,926 UK residents over 18 years of age was conducted between April and June 2020. Please see the published research page to view our INTACT publications.

Please contact Dr Elena Ratschen if you would like to discuss more about the project.

OWLS (2020-2023)

Title: Optimising wellbeing in social isolation: The role of animal ownership in severe mental illness

Summary: Two surveys have been conducted as part of the larger OWLS study exploring the effects of the pandemic restrictions on people with severe mental illness. We aimed to investigate the links between mental and physical health and ownership in people with severe mental illness and explore owners’ perceptions relating to human-animal interactions during the pandemic restrictions. Please see the published research page to view our OWLS publications.

Please contact Dr Emily Shoesmith if you like to discuss more about the project.

Impact of Covid-19 on animal-assisted interventions (2020-2021)

Summary: Animal-assisted interventions (AAIs) are increasingly common in UK health settings. The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted on their delivery, with many organisations offering AAIs virtually during lockdown periods. A small-scale survey of 36 AAI providers was conducted to explore the impact of Covid-19 on the delivery of AAIs, and associated challenges and opportunities.

Please contact Dr Emily Shoesmith if you like to discuss more about the project.

 

Published Research

Shoesmith, E., Lorimer, B., Peckham, E., Walker, L., & Ratschen, E. (2023). The influence of animal ownership on mental health for people with severe mental illness: Findings from a UK population cohort study. Human-Animal Interactions. 

Shoesmith, E., & Ratschen, E. (2023). The role of regular engagement with non-companion animals and proximity to green and blue space for mental health, wellbeing, and loneliness during Covid-19 social distancing measures: findings from a UK survey study. Wildlife Research. 

Shoesmith, E., Surr, C., & Ratschen, E. (2023). Animal-assisted and robotic animal-assisted interventions with dementia care: A systematic review. Dementia, 22(3), 664-693.

Shoesmith, E., Gibsone, S., & Ratschen, E. (2022). The impact of Covid-19 on animal-assisted interventions: perceptions of UK animal-assisted intervention providers. Journal of Public Health.

Shoesmith, E., Spanakis, P., Peckham, E., Heron, P., Johnston, G., Walker, L., Crosland, S. & Ratschen, E. (2021). The Role of Animal Ownership for People with Severe Mental Illness during the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Mixed-Method Study Investigating Links with Health and Loneliness. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 10.3390/ijerph182211908. 

Shoesmith, E., Santos de Assis, L., Shahab, L., Ratschen, E., Toner, P., Kale, D., Reeve, C., & Mills, D. (2021). The Perceived Impact of The First UK COVID-19 Lockdown on Companion Animal Welfare and Behaviour: A Mixed-Method Study of Associations with Owner Mental Health. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 10.3390/ijerph18116171. 

Shoesmith, E., Shahab, L., Kale, D., Mills, D., Reeve, C., Toner, P., Santos de Assis, L., & Ratschen, E. (2021). The Influence of Human–Animal Interactions on Mental and Physical Health during the First COVID-19 Lockdown Phase in the U.K.: A Qualitative Exploration. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 18.

Oliver-Hall, H., Ratschen, E., Tench, C. R., Brooks, H., Constantinescu, C., & Edwards, L. (2021). Pet ownership and Multiple Sclerosis during Covid-19. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18. 

Ratschen, E., Shoesmith, E., Shahab, L., Silva, K., Kale, D., Toner, P., Reeve, C., & Mills, D. (2020). Human-animal relationships and interactions during the Covid-19 lockdown phase in the UK: Investigating links with mental health and loneliness. PLoS ONE. 15. e0239397. 10.1371/journal.pone.0239397. 

Ratschen, E. & Sheldon, T. A. (2019). Elephant in the room: animal-assisted interventions. The British Medical Journal, 376.

Upcoming and Past Events

Human-animal interaction before and after Covid-19 - 11th November 2021

We are delighted to host another event on ‘Human-animal interaction before and after Covid-19: lessons and priorities for research, policy and practice’ at the ESRC Festival of Social Sciences 2021.

When? Thursday, 11th November 2021, 14:00 - 16:00

Where? Online, via Zoom (link will be provided via email upon registration) 

How to register? Via Eventbrite: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/human-animal-interaction-before-and-since-covid-19-lessons-priorities-tickets-169277723227 

Places are limited, so do register early to avoid disappointment!

Please contact Dr Emily Shoesmith if you would like a recording of the webinar.

Human-animal interaction before and after Covid-19 - 11th November 2020

We are delighted to host an event on ‘Human-animal interaction before and after Covid-19: lessons and priorities for research, policy and practice’ under the umbrella of the ESRC Festival of Social Science 2020.

When? Wednesday, 11th November 2020, 09:30 – 11:30.

Where? Online, via Zoom

How to register? Via Eventbrite: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/human-animal-interaction-before-and-since-covid-19-lessons-priorities-tickets-124246008155?aff=ebdssbonlinesearch

Places are limited, so register early to avoid disappointment!

Please contact Dr Emily Shoesmith if you would like a recording of the webinar.

AAI/HAI Research Networking Day - 17th July 2019

The inclusion of animals in health care, social care and educational contexts for therapeutic purposes is rapidly expanding in the UK. Despite increasing popularity and provision of animal-assisted interventions (AAIs), research on the subject in the UK is scarce.

Our 1st collaborative AAI Research Networking Day was hosted jointly by the Universities of York, Lincoln and Sheffield and brought together academics, clinicians, providers and other stakeholders with the aim to:

  • provide an overview of AAI provision and research in health and social care nationally
  • explore challenges and opportunities of AAI provision and research
  • identify research priorities
  • facilitate networking and collaborations.

It was a fantastic day, with 50 delegates from all corners of the country, and so inspiring and enjoyable. We would like to thank everyone again for making it to York and hope to see you again before too long!

Please click to see the Programme (PDF , 298kb) for the day.

Please contact Dr Elena Ratschen to view the presentations. 

News

Current Special Issues

We are pleased to announce we are guest editing a Special Issue in Frontiers in Psychiatry entitled: “Evidencing the impact of human-animal interaction for those living with mental health problems”. The Special Issue focuses on the benefits and risks of human-animal interactions for mental health populations in clinical contexts across the lifespan. There is particular interest in work that focuses on inpatient and outpatient populations with severe mental illness, adults and children/young people with neurodevelopmental disorders, adults with dementia, and those diagnosed with common mental disorders. Rigorous research examining the mechanisms underpinning the therapeutic effects of human-animal interaction, randomised controlled trials assessing clinical and cost-effectiveness, and manuscripts detailing the development of protocols for interventions/training are encouraged.

The deadline for submissions is 31st January 2024. Please visit Frontiers in Psychiatry for further information. 

We are delighted to be guest editing a Special Issue in Human-Animal Interactions entitled: “Impact on human and animal health and welfare”. The Special Issue focuses on the therapeutic and health implications of all aspects of human-animal interaction (e.g., animal-assisted therapy and animal-assisted interventions, relationships/bonds with companion animals), inclusive of those that investigate potential risks to both humans and/or animals. We have a particular interest in research on social determinants of human and animal health, the intersection of animal and human welfare, studies that enhance knowledge of human-animal interaction and multispecies families across and/or within population groups, and studies that pay special attention to animal welfare aspects within the context of animal-assisted intervention provision.

The deadline for submissions is 1st November 2023. Please visit Human-Animal Interactions for further information.

Previous Special Issues

We guest edited our first special issue in The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health entitled: “New Perspectives on the Impact on Human Health and Animal Welfare”. The Special Issue focused on research investigating the mental and physical health and social outcomes of human-animal interactions (including living with companion or assistance animals; AAT; AAA; AAE, and interactions with non-domestic animals/wildlife). Topics could include (but were not limited to) issues at the forefront of public health concern (e.g., social isolation and loneliness, mental health, addiction, heart health).

This Special Issue closed in April 2022, and includes 10 high-quality publications exploring various aspects of human-animal interactions. Please visit The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health for further information and to read the Special Issue publications.

Animal-assisted interventions (including robotic animals)

Woman with dog

We explore the potential benefits of using animal-assisted and robotic animal assisted interventions to support treatment and care in clinical populations across the lifespan.  For more information, please visit the project webpage.

Assistance animals

Assitance dog

We are interested in investigating the impact of assistance animals on mental health and behavioural outcomes in a range of populations. For more information, please visit the project webpage.

Cross-cutting themes

Abstract network

We are also interested in the development of standardised measures for HAI outcomes, methods, and instrument development, cost-effectiveness, and research questions relating to equity and diversity. We are incorporating these themes into all our research projects as comprehensively as possible. For more information, or to discuss project ideas, please contact Dr Elena Ratschen

Relationships with companion                  animals

Girl with cat

Our research focuses on the impact of animal ownership on physical and mental health, and the underlying mechanisms that may lead to these outcomes. We have also explored the welfare and behaviour of companion animals during the pandemic context. For more information, please visit the project webpage.

Engagement with wildlife

Wildlife on a lake

Our research also explores HAIs that involve non-companion animals, for example farm animals or wildlife, for human health and wellbeing. This constitutes an area of emerging research in this field. For more information, please visit the project webpage.