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Updated to reflect evolving changes in our knowledge and discourse regarding the subject. Citations and references added to reflect an expanded literature; terminology relating to animals altered to reflect more accurate understanding of animals.

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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.

Keywords: animal abuse, animal-assisted therapy, animal cruelty, animals and family violence, human–animal bond, animal-assisted interventions, pet therapy

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. 1. If kept as pets, companion animals are usually considered to be members of the family and hence part of family systems

  2. 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. 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 Cruelty

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).

Positive Impact

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.


Adams, C. J. (1995). Woman-battering and harm to animals. In C. J. Adams & J. Donovan (Eds.), Animals and women: Feminist theoretical explorations (pp. 55–84). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Find this resource:

    Albert, A., & Anderson, M. (1997). Dogs, cats and morale maintenance: Some preliminary data. Anthrozoos, 10, 121–124.Find this resource:

      American Pet Products Association National Pet Owners Survey. (2011–12). Statistics: Pet ownership & annual expenses. Retrieved from this resource:

        Ascione, F. R. (1993). Children who are cruel to animals: A review of research and implications for developmental psychopathology. Anthrozoos, 6, 226–247.Find this resource:

          Ascione, F. R. (2005). Children and animals: Exploring the roots of kindness and cruelty. Indiana: Purdue University Press.Find this resource:

            Ascione, F. R., Weber, C. V., & Wood, D. S. (1997, April 25). Final report on the project entitled: Animal welfare and domestic violence (submitted to the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation). Logan, UT: Utah State University.Find this resource:

              Beck, A. M., & Glickman, L. T. (1987, September 10– 11 ). Future research on pet facilitated therapy: A plea for comprehension before intervention. Paper presented at the NIH Technology Assessment Workshop: Health benefits of pets, Washington, DC.Find this resource:

                Besthorn, F. H. & McMillen, D. P. (2002). The oppression of women and nature: Ecofeminism as a framework for a social justice oriented social work. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services, 83(3), 221–232.Find this resource:

                  Cusack, O. (1988). Pets and mental health. New York: The Haworth Press.Find this resource:

                    DeGue, S., & DiLillo, D. (2009). Is animal cruelty a “Red Flag” for family violence: Investigating co-occurring violence toward children, partners and pets. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 24, 1036–1056.Find this resource:

                      Faver, C. (2009). Seeking our place in the web of life: Animals and human spirituality. Journal of Religion & Spirituality in Social Work: Social Thought, 28, 362–378.Find this resource:

                        Faver, C. A., & Strand, E. B. (2003). Domestic violence and animal cruelty: Untangling the web of abuse. Journal of Social Work Education, 39, 237–253.Find this resource:

                          Faver, C. A., & Strand, E. B. (2007). Fear, guilt, and grief: Harm to pets and the emotional abuse of women. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 7(3), 59–81.Find this resource:

                            Faver, C. A., & Strand, E. B. (2008). Unleashing compassion: Social work and animal abuse. In F. R. Ascione (Ed.). The international handbook of animal abuse and cruelty: Theory, research, and application (pp. 175–199). West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.Find this resource:

                              Fine, A. (ed.) (2010). Handbook of animal-assisted therapy (3rd ed). CA: Academic Press.Find this resource:

                                Garrity, T. F., & Stallones, L. (1998). Effects of pet contact on human well-being. In C. C. Wilson & D. C. Turner (Eds.), Companion animals in human health (pp. 3–22). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Find this resource:

                                  Gullone, E. (2011). Conceptualizing animal abuse with an antisocial behavior framework. Animals, 1, 144–160.doi:10.3390/ani1010144.Find this resource:

                                    Hanrahan, C. (2011). Challenging anthropocentricism in social work through ethics and spirituality: Lessons from studies in human-animal bonds. Journal of Religion & Spirituality in Social Work: Social Thought 3(30), 272–293, doi:10.1080/15426432.2011.587387Find this resource:

                                      Hutton, J. S. (1998). Animal abuse as a diagnostic approach in social work: A pilot study. In R. Lockwood & F. R. Ascione (Eds.), Cruelty to animals and interpersonal violence (pp. 415–418). Indiana: Purdue University Press.Find this resource:

                                        Jalongo, M. R., Stanek, M. L., & Fennimore, B. S. (2004). Companion animals at home: What children learn from families. In M. R. Jalongo (Ed.), The world's children and their companion animals: Developmental and educational significance of the child/pet bond (pp. 47–60). Olney, MD: Association for Childhood Education International.Find this resource:

                                          Levinson, B. M., & Mallon, G. P. (1997). Pet-oriented child psychotherapy. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, (Originally by B. M. Levinson, revised & updated by Mallon, G. P.)Find this resource:

                                            Loar, L. (1999). “I'll only help you if you have two legs” or, why human service professionals should pay attention to cases involving cruelty to animals. In F. R. Ascione & P. Arkow (Eds.), Child abuse, domestic violence, and animal abuse (pp. 120–136). Indiana: Purdue University Press.Find this resource:

                                              Melson, G. F. (2001). Why the wild things are: Animals in the lives of children. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

                                                Merz-Perez, L., & Heide, K. M. (2004). Animal cruelty: Pathway to violence against people. New York: Altamira Press.Find this resource:

                                                  Raina, P., Waltner-Toews, D., Bonnett, B. G., Woodward, C., & Abernathy, T. (1999). Influence of companion animals on the physical and psychological health of older people: An analysis of a one-year longitudinal study. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 47, 323–329.Find this resource:

                                                    Risley-Curtiss, C. (2010). Social work practitioners and the human-other animal bond: A national study. Social Work, 55, 38–46.Find this resource:

                                                      Risley-Curtiss, C., Holley, L. C., Cruickshank, T., Porcelli, J., Rhoads, C., Bacchus, D., et al. (2006). “She was family:” Women of color and their animal-human connections. AFFILIA, 21, 433–447.Find this resource:

                                                        Risley-Curtiss, C., Holley, L. C., & Wolf, S. (2006). The animal-human bond and ethnic diversity. Social Work, 51, 257–268.Find this resource:

                                                          Rosen, B. (1998). Watch for pet abuse—It might save your client's life. In R. Lockwood & F. R. Ascione (Eds.), Cruelty to animals and interpersonal violence (pp. 340–347). Indiana: Purdue University Press.Find this resource:

                                                            Ryan, T. (2011) Animals and social work: A moral introduction. (New York and Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

                                                              Wolf, D. (2000, January). Social work and speciesism. Social Work, 45(1), 88–93.Find this resource:

                                                                Further Reading

                                                                American Humane Association:

                                                                Anderson, R. K., Hart, B. L., & Hart, L. A. (Eds.). (1984). The pet connection. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.Find this resource:

                                                                  Animals and Society Institute:

                                                                  American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals:

                                                                  Ascione, F. R., & Arkow, P. (Eds.). (1999). Child abuse, domestic violence, and animal abuse. Indiana: Purdue University Press.Find this resource:


                                                                    The Humane Link:

                                                                    Humane Society of the United States:

                                                                    Intermountain Therapy Animals:

                                                                    Jalongo, M. R. (Ed.) (2004). The world's children and their companion animals: Developmental and educational significance of the child/pet bond. Olney, MD: Association for Childhood Education International.Find this resource:

                                                                      The Latham Foundation:

                                                                      Lockwood, R., & Ascione, F. R. (Eds.) (1998). Cruelty to animals and interpersonal violence. Indiana: Purdue University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                        National Institute of Health. (1988). Health benefits of pets: summary of working group. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.Find this resource:

                                                                          Pet Partners (formerly Delta Society):

                                                                          Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl.):

                                                                          Risley-Curtiss, C. (2010). Social work and other animals: Living up to ecological practice. In M. DeMello (Ed.), Teaching the animal: Human-animal studies across the disciplines (pp. 281–298). Hudson, NY: Lantern Press.Find this resource:

                                                                            Risley-Curtiss, C., Holley, L.C., & Kodiene, S. (2011, October–December). “They’re there for you;” Men and their experiences with companion animals. Families in Society, 92, 412–418.Find this resource:

                                                                              Risley-Curtiss, C., Zilney, L.A., & Hornung, R. (2010). Animal-human relationships in public child welfare: Getting a baseline. Child Welfare, 89, 67–82.Find this resource: