Human–Other Animal Bond
Abstract and Keywords
A growing body of research attests to the negative and positive relationships that humans have with other animals. Operating from the profession's ecological perspective, which requires one to look at people in social and natural environments, social work researchers, educators, and practitioners must join other disciplines in incorporating human–other animal relationships into their work. This entry presents information on three specific areas that will help maximize the profession's ability to help clients: other animals as family, animal abuse, and the positive impact of relationships with animals.
Keeping companion animals (that is, pets) is a universal cultural phenomenon, with the health and well-being of companion animals and humans long intertwined. Sixty-two percent of U.S. households report having companion animals (American Pet Products Association National Pet Owners Survey, 2011–2012) and 68% to 97% of those with companion animals consider them family (Risley-Curtiss, Holley, & Wolf, 2006). There is much evidence attesting to the complex and powerful connections between people and other animals, both positive and negative. Companion animals may assist children and adults in feeling a sense of security and unconditional love, contribute to a child's cognitive and language development, and augment an elder adult's ability to carry out daily activities (Melson, 2001; Raina, Waltner-Toews, Bonnett, Woodward, & Abernathy, 1999; Risley-Curtiss, Holley, Cruickshank, et al., 2006). Therapy animals may assist children in learning to read, clients in establishing rapport with therapists more rapidly, or in calming Alzheimer patients. Other animals are also victims of human cruelty with evidence of a link between animal abuse and family violence, and/or increased criminality (Ascione, 2005; DeGue & DiLillo, 2009; Faver & Strand, 2003).
The interrelatedness between humans and other animals plays out in many ways but three are essential for social workers to recognize and incorporate into research, education, and practice:
1. If kept as pets, companion animals are usually considered to be members of the family and hence part of family systems
2. Animal abuse by children or adults is a strongly deviant behavior indicating the need for mental health services as well as possibly being a marker for violence against humans
3. Other animals, as companions as well as adjuncts to therapy, can have a positive impact on the functioning of all age humans, but especially children and the elderly.
While each is discussed separately below these categories are intertwined.
While the definition of “other animal as family member” may differ by culture, social class, or other factors, family animal–human interactions can result in such behaviors as companion animals sleeping with family members, sharing tidbits from meals and snacks, celebrating their animals' birthdays, and burying an animal with ceremony. Considering other animals as family members means that they can be important to all members of a family and are one of the subsystems within the complex family system. As such, they both influence, and are influenced by, every other family subsystem (Melson, 2001). Albert and Anderson (1997) found, for example, that women talked about their companion animals raising family morale. Companion animals may mirror family tensions and critical situations, and they can act as stabilizers in these situations because of their offer of love, affection, and unconditional acceptance. Additionally, companion animals help families to learn about certain life experiences, such as responsibility (who cares for the animal), caregiving (the actual act of nurturing and caring for an animal), loss, and death (the death of the animal itself). Companion animals may also sacrifice their own health or give their lives for family members by serving as protectors in unsafe environments (Jalongo, Stanek, & Fennimore, 2004).
Animal abuse, defined by Ascione (1993) to be “socially unacceptable behavior that intentionally causes unnecessary pain, suffering, or distress to and/or the death of an animal” (p. 228) is a serious, alarming behavior. For children, it may be one of the earliest manifestations of conduct problems and indicates a need for intervention (Merz-Perez & Heide, 2004). A substantial body of research suggests that animal abuse by children may be an early indicator of an inclination for other antisocial behaviors (Gullone, 2011). Animal abuse by adults and children may also co-occur with intimate-partner violence (IPV) and child maltreatment (see Ascione, 2005, for a summary of this research). Cruelty to other animals by key persons in an individual's life may be an indicator that they, themselves, are at risk of having violence committed against them. Merz-Perez and Heide (2004) found that a number of participants in their study of 45 nonviolent and 45 violent offenders had observed their parents committing abusive acts against the offenders' companion animals. This was cruelty against these offenders in psychological form (Ascione, 2005). Similarly, battered women whose companion animals are threatened, harmed, or killed experience fear for themselves and their animals. They may decide they have to give up their animal to a shelter (where it may be euthanized) to avoid harm. These women can experience profound grief over the loss of their animal and the relationship with that animal. If they have children who also experience this loss, they suffer this loss with them (Adams, 1995; Faver & Strand, 2007). Ascione, Weber, and Wood (1997) interviewed 39 children of battered mothers and found 66.7% had witnessed companion animals being hurt by, among other things, strangulation, poisoning, and being shot. More than 50% said they had protected a companion animal from a perpetrator.
The link between having witnessed animal abuse and actually abusing animals is also suggested by various studies that document a co-occurrence between animal cruelty and other forms of family violence (child maltreatment, and IPV). Ascione et al. (1997) found in their study of companion-animal-abuse experiences of abused and nonabused women, that 61.5% of the abused women reported their children witnessing animal abuse, in contrast to 3.3% of the nonabused women. More than 13% of the children who had witnessed such abuse reported they themselves had hurt a companion animal by doing such things as throwing or stepping on the animal. Research also supports the co-occurrence between other animal and child abuse, as well as elder abuse. Children, for example, who have been sexually or physically abused are more likely than nonabused children to abuse nonhuman animals (Ascione, 2005).
The literature is replete with evidence of a variety of positive effects, physical as well as psychological, that other animals can have on humans. Risley-Curtiss, Holley, Cruickshank, et al. (2006) found that women identified receiving friendship, fun, love, comfort, constancy, or protection, or some combination of these, either for themselves, their children, or both, from their animal companions. Because of the powerful connections that humans can have with other animals, animals can also be positive adjuncts in the treatment of clients (that is, animal-assisted activities and therapy, referred to as animal-assisted intervention or AAI) (Fine, 2010).
This positive impact has been recognized as early as the middle 18th century with the planned introduction of pets into the care of the mentally ill at the York Retreat in England. Boris Levinson was the first professionally trained clinician in the United States to formally document, in Pet-Oriented Child Psychotherapy (1969), how inclusion of other animals can enhance the development of rapport between clients and therapist, thus increasing the likelihood of client motivation; be helpful in psychological assessment, in psychotherapy, in AAI in residential settings, in working to motivate the exceptional child for learning, and in family therapy (Levinson & Mallon, 1997). Cusack (1988) reviewed research on the positive connection between mental health and companion animals specifically related to depression, stress and anxiety, and psychiatric patients, as well as children, adolescents, family, the elderly, the physically challenged, and those in prison. About the same time, Beck and Glickman (1987) concluded the National Institutes of Health workshop on the human health benefits of companion animals by proposing that all future studies of human health include as a factor the presence or absence of other animals with which the humans may share their lives; where present, the nature of this relationship needs to be considered a significant variable. Garrity and Stallones (1998) also reviewed research on the effects of companion-animal contact on human well-being concluding that benefits from such association can occur on psychological, physical, social, and behavioral levels and are probably both a direct benefit to humans and a protective or buffering factor when humans face life crises.
Relationships with animals can also promote human and animal welfare by contributing to human spirituality. Interactions with wild and domestic animals can help people realize the interdependence and connectedness of all life and learn how to have better relationships with all (Faver, 2009; Hanrahan, 2011)
Call to Action
The evidence of the interrelatedness of humans and other animals means that the social work profession must be informed about these relationships and trained in how to include other animals in their assessment and treatment of clients. Social work practice is grounded in an ecological-systems perspective that views humans within the context of their environments and as constantly in reciprocal interaction with significant others (for example, other animals). While this has been our rhetoric there have been challenges in its actual implementation, criticisms of speciesim (Wolf, 2000) and calls for an expanded ecological practice (for example, see Besthorn & McMillen, 2002). The inclusion of other animals in our research, education, and practice should be a natural, and perhaps moral (Faver & Strand, 2008; Ryan, 2011), extension of our work with humans, and their challenges, coping mechanisms, and resiliency factors. Nonetheless, current research suggests that the profession is not widely attending to this relationship in practice. In a national study of 1,649 practitioners, Risley-Curtiss (2007) found that barely 33% asked about other animals as part of assessment, only 23.2% included the human–other animal relationship in intervention, and more than 95% reported they had no training to include the human–other animal bond in their practice. Recognizing the interrelatedness of human and other animals may significantly affect social workers' abilities to help their clients. For example, for social workers, animal abuse may well be a means of identifying parallel dynamics within the larger family group (Hutton, 1998; Loar, 1999; Rosen, 1998). Failure to incorporate human–other animal relationships means the profession is missing the opportunity to maximize its ability to help clients.
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