How Human Social Factors Affect Companion Animals’ Health
It’s widely known that for humans, intangible issues like poverty and discrimination are related to tangible health issues such as diabetes and heart disease. Yet until now, research has failed to consider the impacts of such social determinants of health—including a person’s education, healthcare, environment, social/community, and economic stability—on one’s nonhuman family members. A new paper paves the way for improvements in how we think about and confront threats to companion animal welfare.
Researchers created a model that integrates the social determinants of health with the five domains of companion animal welfare, which include an animal’s nutrition, physical environment, health, behavioral interactions, and mental state. By reviewing data from prior studies on companion animal health, they found that poor social determinants of health in humans can translate into poor outcomes for their companion animals. This pattern is reflected in each of the five social determinants of health categories.
For example, in the social determinants of health domain of education, a human’s lack of adequate education may prevent them from understanding their companion animal’s health and behavioral needs. Guardians who don’t understand their companion animals’ needs can fail to provide them with enough nutritious food or punish them for behavior that should be trained out with positive reinforcement instead. In turn, poor health and behavior are common reasons why people abandon or euthanize their companions.
In the healthcare domain, a human with long-term health conditions may be more likely to relinquish their companion animal or be unable to adequately care for them. People without access to affordable health care may also struggle to provide health care for their companion animals. Their animals may suffer from disease or injury as a result or have health issues that go undiagnosed.
In the environment domain, studies have shown that people in low-income communities face obstacles to accessing services for their animals. People in low-income communities may not have access to transportation to take their companion animals to the vet or community green spaces for the animals to safely play and exercise. The animals may therefore lack enrichment and physical exercise. Another problem is that many apartments do not allow animals, so people who don’t own a home may be required to give up their companion animals when they move into a new place.
In the social and community domain, research shows that communities with lower socioeconomic status tend to have weaker social support. Companion animals that don’t interact with other animals may have lower well-being and quality of life. They may also exhibit negative behaviors such as destroying items, aggression, and even harming people. In addition, studies have found that domestic abusers often also abuse companion animals.
In the economic stability domain, researchers found that the most common reason people give for relinquishing their companion animals is insufficient funds. This domain really drives the other four, as people with low incomes may have difficulty affording training, veterinary care, food, safe spaces, exercise, enrichment, and opportunities for social interactions. One study showed that 40% of participants who relinquished a companion animal wouldn’t have done so if they’d had free or low-cost veterinary care.
These findings point to an immense need for low-cost and accessible resources for companion animals. Because research in this area is so new, not many solutions exist yet. One idea the researchers suggest is a universal healthcare system for animals. There is even a pilot program at the University of Tennessee called Program for Pet Health Equity, in which social workers, animal welfare organizations, veterinarians, and insurance companies work together to provide veterinary services to animals with low-income guardians. Still, as the study’s authors emphasize, there is much more to be done.