senior man petting a black and white cat in his lap

Human Animal Interaction

Unravelling the science behind the human-animal bond

Decades of research have shown us that the special bond we share with animals is as nuanced as it is rewarding. At a time when the global pandemic continues to keep us physically apart from loved ones, we’re committed to better understanding the science behind the human-animal bond and how it can help address societal challenges such as social isolation and loneliness.

Only through continued scientific exploration will we learn more about the specific elements of human-animal interaction (HAI) that can be beneficial in alleviating the effects of loneliness and isolation. 

To this end, the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) and Mars Petcare, with support from the consortium of partners attending the first-ever Social Isolation and Companion Animals Summit, contributed three papers to a special issue published in the journal Animals. This issue looks at Social Isolation and the Roles That Animals Play in Supporting the Lives of Humans, with a focus on lessons learned from COVID-19. 

Research highlights

One paper led by Dr Dawn Carr, PhD, Department of Sociology, Florida State University, analysed longitudinal survey data of adults over the age of 60 to test the association between social consequences of COVID-19 and changes in loneliness and the buffering effect of dog walking on this relationship. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the research found that the COVID-19 pandemic was associated with increases in loneliness, but that daily walks with a dog buffered this effect, suggesting a potential therapeutic effect of dog walking for promoting mental health in older adults, particularly in the context of stressful situations that might increase feelings of loneliness. 

A second paper led by Dr Angela Hughes, DVM, PhD, Global Science Advocacy Senior Manager, Mars Petcare, shares insights on the impact of the HABRI-Mars Petcare Consortium on Social Isolation and Companion Animals and how this collaboration has yielded actionable insights and research projects, serving as a model for future cross-disciplinary thinking to advocate and elevate HAI for the mutual benefit of companion animals and people alike. 

The third paper, led by Dr Zenithson Ng, DVM, MS, Dipl ABVP, of the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, discusses the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the ways people interact with different types of companion animals including owned pets, therapy animals and service dogs. The paper provides solution-focused suggestions for ways we can continue to share the power of the human-animal bond during times when physical connections are limited and when social connection is needed most. 

“These publications represent a critical aspect of our Consortium effort to explore the potential of companion animals to help address the epidemic of loneliness and social isolation, which has only grown more pressing since the pandemic began,” said Steven Feldman, president of HABRI. “As these papers highlight, the human-animal bond has served as a key source of emotional and social support for so many over the last year-and-a-half, underscoring the importance of future research investigating this impact.”