Saturday, 20 November 2010

Social Inequality and Pets

As research evidence continues to accumulate about the positive benefits that pets can have on people's health, from individual owners through to entire neighbourhoods, let's give serious consideration to social inequality.

For decades, research has shown that health outcomes tend to differ with social status, and this body of knowledge has immense policy relevance. Meanwhile, social support protects against disease to an extent that is comparable to quitting smoking. Not only are risky behaviours concentrated in disadvantaged groups, but there seems to be something about being disadvantaged that eats away at health.

This social gradient in health could be exacerbated by barriers to pet ownership. People who surrender pets to animal welfare charities are disproportionately renters with low incomes, research has confirmed. Meanwhile, our group has highlighted that in previous qualitative research on physical activity in parks, dogs are beneficial influences in many contexts, but are also be perceived as a security concern, particularly by women in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

Programs to help people keep their pets during periods of housing and food insecurity could be important for health. In the US, food banks increasingly distribute pet food and supplies, reported the New York Times earlier this year. Food bank use across Canada has broken previous records, meanwhile, and Calgary is no exception to this trend, reported Jenna McMurray in the The Calgary Sun this week.

People will often feed themselves before their pets, and being able to keep caring for a beloved pet can make all the difference in the world to adults as well as children. Even in the poorest countries of the world, like Chad, people keep and value pets.

I applaud the Calgary Food Bank's practice of screening routinely for the presence of pets in client homes. For every cash or on-line donation of $1, the Calgary Food Bank can purchase at least $4 worth of products.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Conflicts over dog litter as a public health issue

One of the fascinating things about companion animals in contemporary Western societies is how they can bring people closer together, but also drive other people further apart. When it comes to the health of human and nonhuman populations, I am just one of many interested in dog-walking as an urban phenomenon that can promote physical activity and positive social interactions. But sometimes, the presence of dogs in urbanized settings is problematic. Dog litter is a case in point. For a long time, dog litter has been recognized as a public health issue because of its potential to spread disease. But dog litter can also discourage people from visiting parks or beaches, and pose a barrier to social cohesion. This topic is something that my research group has broached in a review article that recently appeared in Health & Place. Conflict over dog litter is also the subject of an insightful feature article that ran earlier this year in The New York Times.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

The latest issue of Anthrozoƶs: a multidiscplinary journal of the interactions between people and animals leads off with an article of mine on how people's experiences with human variants of diabetes inform their responses to canine and feline diabetes -- and vice-versa.

This paper extends the concept of illness prototypes, especially as articulated by the anthropologist Allan Young, to people's relationships with animals. The title is: "Prototypes Connect Human Diabetes with Feline and Canine Diabetes in the Context of Animal-Human Bonds: An Anthropological Analysis."

A video news release is currently available via the front page of one of the funders, Alberta Innovates - Health Solutions (See "Fido can teach us a few tricks...Study recommends leveraging love of pets for better human health). A print news release that summarizes the main findings and key implications is also available from that site.

Monday, 17 May 2010

People's networks include pets -- a research opportunity

BMC Medical Research Methodology has published an article based on my positive experience in recruiting people who have treated their pet for diabetes. A single email led to just the sort of sample that I needed -- relatively small, but diverse. About half of those who ultimately participated didn't receive the email themselves, but heard about the study from a friend, neighbour or family member who had. As this and other studies have shown, people's social networks are partly shaped by pets. The title of the article is,"Harnessing Social Networks along with Consumer-Driven Electronic Communication Technologies to Identify and Engage Members of 'Hard-to-Reach' Populations: A Methodological Case Report." The full-text is available free of charge.