Promoting healthy, resilient and sustainable development at the individual, family and community levels: a systematic review and meta-analysis of human-animal interactions

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About the project

Human-animal interaction (HAI) is understood as a powerful agent in the reduction of loneliness and social isolation by way of bolstering pro-social behaviour in a multitude of environments. Pre-pandemic, various research and practice fields identified a range of HAIs with social and health benefits for individuals, families, and communities. Since the COVID-19 onset in March 2020, HAI’s social and health spectrum, especially responding to the “loneliness epidemic” (lockdowns, quarantines, and related public health measures), has attracted considerable practice and policy-making attention.

This project employs the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Review and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) approach to comprehensively recognize HAI-specific knowledge, strategies, and outcomes associated with healthy, resilient, and sustainable development at three levels (individual, family and community) to inform short-term post-pandemic recovery efforts, as well as long-term social development practices and policies. This project is positioned in a rapidly changing socio-economic landscape (nationally and internationally) and uses a mixed-method analysis approach (quantitative and qualitative) to critically identify HAI-specific benefits that enhance existing and prospective practices and policies pertaining to reducing asocial behaviours and other maladaptive issues at the individual, family and community levels. The outcomes will support HAI-specific research, practice and policy, which in turn will contribute to the development of healthy and resilient societies.

Key findings

HAI literature has predominately focused on companion animals (e.g., dogs and cats), while other animals (e.g., farm animals and wildlife) are under-researched. The following HAI-specific findings were categorized at the individual, family and community levels; however, we acknowledge the interconnections among these three components.

Individual-level HAI:

  • HAI and individual-level health benefits have been extensively researched worldwide, including physical health (e.g., chronic pain, cardiovascular disease, encouragement of physical activity), mental health (e.g., suicidal behaviour, social anxiety disorders and mood disorders), and overall well-being (e.g., loneliness, stress and social connections).
  • Since the onset of COVID-19, the health and well-being benefits of HAI have been highlighted globally, including maintaining daily physical activities, reducing stress and loneliness, and responding to pandemic-triggered societal hardships (e.g., social and economic). Notably, animal guardians showed better mental health status than people without animals.
  • HAI positively impacts the development and education of children, adolescents and young adults, including early childhood development, and animal-assisted interventions promote social, emotional and learning competencies for students from K-12 to postsecondary education.
  • HAI has contributed positively to vulnerable and marginalized populations: older adults (e.g., pet attachment and social support), persons with (dis)Abilities (increased autonomy, personal growth and self-acceptance), individuals experiencing homelessness (chronic mental health crises), disaster survivors (pre-disaster preparedness, heeding of evacuation warning, swift post-disaster recovery), veterans (reduced symptoms of PTSD, increased self-compassion) and incarcerated persons (enhanced sense of responsibility and vocational skills).

Family-level HAI:

  • Treating pets as family members contributes to uniting family members, strengthening family structure, and promoting overall well-being among family members (particularly for military families). Social support and mental health benefits of HAI were significantly emphasized during COVID-19.
  • The family-level HAI-specific research was relatively scarce; importantly, however, family-level HAI can act as a bridge or intermediary between individuals and communities—family-level HAI positive outcomes benefit different family members and contribute to the communities that families occupy.

Community-level HAI:

  • HAI can create strong, connected communities by stimulating social interaction among community members and encouraging individual social engagement in community development.
  • Physical, community-based HAI settings (e.g., parks, zoos and aquariums) provide individuals with a positive living/visiting experience and build a public platform for connecting and engaging in community-based activities.
  • Community-level HAI is aligned with the One Health framework, focusing on the interconnections among humans, animals and environments. Alongside HAI and animal-assisted interventions (AAI), One Health enhances individual and collective health and well-being, creating stronger, more resilient, and sustainable communities on a larger scale.

Policy implications

  • Based on HAI-specific knowledge deficits, future research should extend the investigation of HAI from companion and service animals to other animals, such as industry animals, laboratory animals and wildlife. Furthermore, although HAI benefits research has covered major vulnerable and marginalized groups, future studies should focus on underrepresented groups, such as adolescents and adults with an autism spectrum disorder. This will provide comprehensive knowledge regarding HAI’s health and social benefits on individual, family and community development.
  • Animal-friendly facilities must be included in applicable government policies because of the magnitude of HAI benefits. For example, community planning policy should guarantee animal-friendly recreation facilities (e.g., dog parks and zoos) to stimulate community engagement. Social service policy should consider animal-friendly health and care organizations (e.g., homeless and violence shelters) to support vulnerable and marginalized populations with pets. Disaster and emergency management policy should encourage animal-friendly disaster facilities (e.g., evacuation centres and transportation) to accommodate disaster survivors with companion/service animals and advocate for animal-inclusive disaster planning for public education.
  • Since HAI benefits have been internationally reported, public health and other policy-makers and decision-makers should consider HAI interventions in their pandemic-related practice and policy regarding pandemic recovery to increase resilience and sustainability at the individual, family and community levels.

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Haorui Wu, Canada Research Chair (Tier 2) in Resilience; assistant professor, School of Social Work, Faculty of Health, Dalhousie University:

Kyle Breen, postdoctoral research associate, School of Social Work, Faculty of Health, Dalhousie University:

Dominic Silvio, public services librarian, Killam Memorial Library, Dalhousie University:

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