Accessibility statement

Relationship with Companion Animals

Girl with a cat

Research suggests that interactions and relationships with companion animals may be beneficial for human health and wellbeing, for example through hypothesised mechanisms involving attachment to or companionship provided by the animal. However, despite these reported benefits, there is also evidence to the contrary. Some studies show that strong reported bonds with companion animals are associated with increased depression and loneliness. Scope for further research to explore the role of HAIs has been identified.

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

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 main aim of this preliminary study is to explore the perceived impact of the Family Dog Service on participating families and to identify potential underlying mechanisms. Its objectives are to: (1) analyse entries from the private Family Dog Service Facebook group; (2) undertake semi-structured interviews with family members to explore in-depth their experience with the service and with their family dog; (3) based on 1. and 2., design a questionnaire instrument and conduct a survey of the family dog cohort to investigate experience with and impact related to the service further. Lastly, we will use these findings to draft a preliminary logic model including potential mechanism-outcome pathways related to the role of the (trained) dog and its impact on the family. Check back here later to read our findings!

Interactions with and Attachment to Animals in the Covid-19 pandemic (INTACT)

The Covid-19 pandemic raises unexplored questions about the role of interactions and relationships between humans and animals in the context of social distancing and isolation, both in terms of human mental health and wellbeing, and animal welfare and behaviour. We conducted a survey study to investigate these questions. The first research paper from the study describes some fascinating results, including the link between mental health and strength of the human-animal bond, and the ‘buffering’ effect companion animal ownership had in terms of increases in loneliness during the UK Covid-19 lockdown.

An analysis of additional qualitative findings complement and extend previous insights into the impact of human-animal interaction with both companion and non-companion animals. They also highlight the challenges of caring for an animal during the lockdown phase and indicate the need to consider the development of further targeted support strategies. 

In another publication, we focused specifically on the welfare and behaviour of companion animals. The results describe the reported changes in companion animal welfare and behaviour and examines the association between these changes and the owners’ mental health. Our findings extend previous insights into perceived welfare and behaviour changes on a very limited range of species to a wider range of companion animals. We also found that owner mental health status had a clear, albeit small, effect on companion animal welfare and behaviour.

Optimising Wellbeing in Social Isolation (OWLS): The role of animal ownership in severe mental illness

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, research has emerged investigating human-animal relationships and interactions in the context of pandemic-related social restrictions. An increasing number of studies have explored human-animal interactions and the links with mental health within the pandemic context. However, these findings may not replicate across other population groups, as existing studies have explored the role of companion animals in the general population, children, and older adults. There has been a lack of literature investigating the role companion animals may play for people with severe mental illness (SMI).

A survey was completed as part of the larger OWLS study exploring the effects of the pandemic restrictions on people with SMI. We aimed to investigate the links between mental and physical health and animal ownership in people with SMI and explore animal owners’ perceptions relating to human-animal interactions during the pandemic restrictions. The findings from this survey describe some interesting results, including that animal ownership appeared to be linked to self-reported mental health decline in people with SMI. However, qualitative data highlighted the perceived benefit of animal ownership during this time. 

It was possible that the self-reported mental health decline in the previous study may have been due to the restrictions associated with the Covid-19 pandemic. Therefore, we conducted a follow-up survey within the same cohort of people with SMI while no pandemic restrictions were in place. The findings from the follow-up survey showed that owning an animal was not significantly associated with wellbeing, depression, anxiety, or loneliness. These results provide a counterpoint to the commonly held assumption that companion animals are beneficial for all owners’ mental health. Further exploration of the role of human-animal relationships, including challenges and support needs related to animal ownership, in people living with SMI is required.

If you would like to discuss project ideas, please contact Dr Elena Ratschen.