Factors Affecting Social Workers' Inclusion of Animals in Practice

Article excerpt

The popular media and the professional literature are replete with ways that animal-human relationships (AHR) can be beneficial or harmful to both the human and the animal. Over 63 percent of U.S. households have companion animals, and the vast majority considers them friends or family members (American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, 2007). These relationships are often characterized by reciprocity, with humans giving and receiving emotional support from their companion animals (Risley-Curtiss, Holley, et al., 2006).

Other areas in which research strongly supports positive benefits from interactions with companion animals include physical and mental health. Physiologically, researchers have found that having a companion animal can help reduce the cardiovascular effects of stress (Allen, Blascovich, & Mendes, 2002), and lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels (Walsh, 2009). With regard to mental health, a range of studies indicate positive AHR can assist children and adults in reducing anxiety, depression, and social isolation (Friedmann & Tsai, 2006). AHP. also can assist people with mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, better cope with their disease (Beck, 2005). Studies also suggest that the presence of an animal can enhance the professional helping process of social workers and others. The presence of a dog may, for example, shorten the time needed for rapport building between counselors and clients; clients may be more willing to share personal information with counselors (Levinson, 1997; Schneider & Harley, 2006).

Animal abuse, another facet of AHR, is correlated with an increased risk of aggression against humans, including child abuse and domestic violence (DeGue & DiLillo, 2009) and other forms of deviant behavior (Gullone, 2011). Animal abuse is considered one symptom of conduct disorder in children. Animal hoarding, defined as failure to provide minimal standards of care for multiple animals, is also a phenomenon that may be on the increase and with which human service professionals are increasingly called on to intervene (Brown, 2011).

Despite the many ways that AHR infuse our lives, human service professions have been slow to embrace the relevance of animals in the lives of clients, and, hence, to include AHP, in research, education, and practice. Yet ecological-systems theory, family-centered practice, social support theory, and the strengths perspective are all central models of social work practice that support the inclusion of AHR (Arkow, 2007; Risley-Curtiss, 2009). Given that animals are part of many clients' ecologies, it would be appropriate for social workers to ask about AHR during assessments. Positive AHR can be considered protective factors for children and adults who experience any number of issues, such as family or other violence or isolation, especially due to illness or age (Castelli, Hart, & Zasloff, 2001). The potential for healing through relationships with animals can be incorporated through animal-assisted interventions (AAI).

The purpose of the current study was to shed light on what influences whether social workers do include animals in practice. We examined whether specific practitioner factors, including certain demographics, having a companion animal, contributing to animal welfare agencies, education level, and area of practice are associated with inclusion of AHR in social work assessments, interventions, and treatment of animal-related issues in clients.

INCLUSION OF AHR IN PRACTICE

Although there is ample documentation of the helpful and hurtful connections between humans and other animals, several studies have documented the lack of inclusion of AHR by various human service professions. Nelson (2002), in a study of 203 psychologists, found only 14 percent assessed for animal abuse, although 94 percent believed animal abuse to be connected to other human behavioral disturbances. Zilney and Zilney (2005), in a study of cross-reporting between child welfare workers and humane society workers, found that a number of child welfare workers thought cross-reporting of animal abuse was unimportant and were resistant to including animal welfare in their assessments. …