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Pets are important to health experience, with patients forming complex relationships and deep emotional bonds – but why has this relationship been so rarely explored in health research and social science?

Role of pets often neglected by researchers

Pets are often written out of reports by social scientists conducting qualitative interviews of a patient’s experience of illness despite the motivational support they provide, a study published in Sociology of Health & Illness has found.

The analysis of 61 in-depth interviews with patients, or carers of people, with long-term conditions shows the multi-faceted nature of people’s relationships with pets, and demonstrates how such interactions are played out in narratives of chronic illness, with pets often being ignored or seen as an interruption to the interview by the researcher.

The study describes how pets were often presented by their owners as important family members, yet the researcher’s responses to the presence or talk about pets was markedly different from their reactions to other household members.

The authors, from the University of Oxford, caution against the downgrading of pets in narrative health research, since pets are often described as the motivating force for returning home from hospital, getting out and exercising, and as important companions in their everyday lives.

Professor Sue Ziebland and Dr Sara Ryan, social scientists from the University of Oxford’s Health Experiences Research Group in the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, comment:

“There is mounting evidence to suggest that pets are associated with physiological, psychological and social benefits for humans. In Western countries in particular, there are consistent calls for greater engagement with pet ownership and health.”

Their analysis found “that health researchers did not ask about the role of companion animals, even when people talked about their pets it was often not followed up within the interview.”

Some responses from researchers, while friendly in tone, demonstrate a blank refusal to engage with companion animals:

“In one interview we saw someone describing the difficulty of being diagnosed with a serious health condition, particularly because they felt their doctor didn’t listen to them as a patient. The researcher’s response was ‘Can I shut that cat up?’

“We found that the topic of pets was almost exclusively raised in the interview by the participants rather than the researchers. Variously, pets were physically removed from the interview setting, written out of the verbatim transcript with an interruption label, and positioned as irrelevant or not interesting enough through a lack of engagement by researchers, who largely failed to prompt participants about the role pets played in their lives. The pets were rarely mentioned in the analysis and initial writing up of findings.”

The authors suggest that the special relationships that exist between humans and nonhumans need to be clearly redefined to support a wider acknowledgement of their importance and the freedom to articulate this for the benefit of research into long-term health conditions. Current constraints can be perpetuated by a lack of engagement with pets and health by the research community. 

The research was funded by the Policy Research Programme in the Department of Health as part of the Research Unit on Quality and Outcomes of person-centred care.


Paper reference:

On interviewing people with pets: reflections from qualitative research on people with long-term conditions.
Sara Ryan and Sue Ziebland, Sociology of Health & Illness. 2015 DOI: 10.1111/1467-9566.12176 

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