NIH – Human-Animal Interaction (HAI) Research (R01, R03, R21)

March 24, 2017 by School of Medicine Webmaster

The following description is from the R01 version of this FOA:

Since 2008, NICHD and The WALTHAM® Centre for Pet Nutrition, a Division of Mars, Inc., have collaborated in a Public-Private Partnership (PPP). The Partnership encourages research on Human-Animal Interaction (HAI), especially as it relates to child development, health, and the therapeutic inclusion of animals in interventions for individuals with disabilities or those requiring rehabilitative services.  This shared interest resulted in The WALTHAM® Centre donating funds to NICHD to enhance NICHD’s ability to support research in this field.

Nearly 75% of US households have pets. The decreasing size of families, with the reduction in the number of younger siblings, babies, and elderly from family homes, means that many children may be more likely to grow up with an animal than with a younger sibling or grandparent in the home. It has been documented in the literature that pets offer a source of emotional support to children, and studies suggest they may be helpful to prevent allergies, ease anxiety and encourage exercise. However, most of the studies focusing on how animals affect children’s health, development and well-being are correlational and stop short of providing answers to key developmental questions and establishing causal relationships.  Likewise, most studies conducted to date have not included diverse samples that would allow researchers to examine possible cultural, racial or ethnic differences in HAI.

A solid research base is needed focusing on information about how children perceive, relate to and think about animals and how pets in the home impact children’s social-emotional and cognitive development. In addition, research is needed on the impact of pets in the home on children’s health-related behaviors (e.g. dog walking and the mitigation of obesity). On a practical level, issues such as at what age and how parents select and introduce pets into their home  has important implications for child health and safety, e.g. how best to prevent injury or disease from pets. There is a need for evidence-based advice for parents and child care professionals.

There also is a need for more research on Animal-Assisted Interventions (AAIs), including Animal-Assisted Therapies (AAT), which purposefully include an animal for therapeutic gains in humans across the lifespan.  Studies of the inclusion of animals in therapeutic interventions and rehabilitation for individuals with intellectual, developmental, physical and mental health-related disabilities have become increasingly common (e.g., equine-assisted therapy), even though conclusive evidence for the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of AAIs has been limited.  Likewise, the use of service animals by individuals with special needs (e.g., children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)) has grown in the absence of controlled studies documenting their safety and efficacy.  Finally, popular media reports commonly feature stories on the use of animals in a variety of service settings (e.g., schools, hospitals, nursing homes) for a variety of HAI activities ranging from companion animal visitation programs to targeted therapeutic interventions by certified therapy animals and their handlers (e.g., therapy dog visits to child oncology inpatient units), but there are very few standardized data collection methods in place to systematically document these activities at a descriptive level much less provide information on reported positive and adverse outcomes.

Objective

The objective of this program of research is to encourage interdisciplinary studies to determine the impact of HAI in and outside the home environment on child and adolescent health and development, as well as therapeutically across the lifespan, through observational studies, experiments and clinical trials.  For the adult population, the objective of this FOA is to build the empirical evidence base around animal-assisted interventions for those with intellectual, developmental or physical disabilities and for those in need of therapeutic and/or rehabilitative services.

Scope

This FOA calls for research to examine 1) the impact of HAI on typical and atypical child development and health; 2) the evaluation of animal-assisted intervention for children and adults with disabilities or in need of rehabilitative services; 3) the effects of animals on public health, including cost effectiveness of involving animals in therapeutic interventions to treat or prevent disease. Both clinical trials and other clinical research can be submitted under this FOA.

Projects should be theoretically based and seek to answer questions that address key developmental, health and safety issues regarding the interactions with animals in home, institutional or therapeutic settings. Research to identify human and animal temperamental, biobehavioral, or genetic markers of suitable behavioral traits for HAI, as well as markers that are amenable to change and can document changes associated with HAI are also encouraged. Physiologic measures (e.g. neuroendocrine, genetic, heart rate, neuroimaging), as well as direct or observational measures of behavioral, cognitive, psychosocial, and/or psychoeducational outcomes are encouraged.

Research is needed to better understand the nature of interactions between people and various types of companion and domesticated animals, as well as the contexts and conditions under which these interactions occur.  Studies are encouraged which address why relationships with pets are more important to some children than to others and to explore the quality of child-pet relationships, noting variability of human-animal relationships within a family. The presence of pet may be a solace to a maltreated child. Research is needed on the effects of separation from pets resulting from natural or man-made disasters as well as family member illness or seeking shelter from abusive situations, as even a temporary separation from a pet can add to the traumatic effects of these circumstances. Developmental studies are needed which examine child-pet interactions and relationships as they change over time and within changing family dynamics. Community-level and social benefits of pets also should be considered, beyond the benefits of the individual pet owner.

There are several critical public health issues facing children today, such as childhood obesity or autism spectrum disorder, for which HAI may have direct impacts. It will be important to determine empirically which situations, under what conditions and for whom HAI can offer the greatest public health benefits and to examine the cost-effectiveness of such interactions or treatments. Both formal and informal situations, i.e. pet ownership and formal therapeutic interactions, should be studied for potential health impacts. In designing studies to address these questions it will be important to determine what outcome measures are needed to demonstrate a causal relationship between animal interaction and improved health. Cost-effectiveness analysis indicating potential societal benefits such as decreased hospitalizations or reduced length of stay in hospitals, lower risk of childhood obesity, or lower incidence of problem behaviors, should be included where possible.

The use of animals in interventions for children and adults with disabilities or for those in need of rehabilitation must be empirically studied.  A clinical trial approach using experimental or quasi-experimental methods is desirable; both designs benefit from the use of rigorous qualitative and quantitative measures to fully examine intervention implementation and fidelity issues, whether the intervention is effective, why, and under what conditions. While randomized controlled trials are a gold standard, it is recognized that there may be times when such a design cannot be fully implemented.  Where it can be used, it should, and where it cannot, the next most rigorous design should be used. Dose-response issues should be carefully targeted in research designs wherever possible.

Public health research through population studies is needed, including the development of survey instruments and/or adjunct studies taking advantage of ongoing large-scale studies where this is feasible given the length of the grant funding period. Collaborating with population-based studies aimed at studying health and development offers a cost-effective way of gathering important information about pets in the home and community and their impact on health and development for children, adults, and families. While this information can be useful and informative in cross-sectional population studies, it also is important to gain information longitudinally on the same subjects where possible, with attention given to collaborating with studies that have appropriately diverse samples.

Ethical considerations must be kept in mind as HAI research is designed and conducted.   Protection for all participants (human and animal) should be in place for any research conducted on HAI. Gathering information ethically and responsibly from children who are particularly vulnerable and for whom parental consent may be difficult to obtain (e.g. foster care) is a challenge that must be carefully addressed. Animal welfare is important and must be considered at all times, especially when animals are working with children or adults whose diagnosis or disability is characterized by episodic uncontrolled emotional or behavioral outbursts that could intentionally or unintentionally place the animal at heightened risk for injury or trauma.

In the studies reporting health or therapeutic effects of HAI to date, few, if any, have examined the extent to which the relationship between pet ownership and health varies by race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status (SES).  Minorities and members of low SES groups consistently exhibit higher rates of negative health behaviors, morbidity, and mortality.  Investigators are encouraged to ensure that their studies have a sufficient number of minorities and variation in SES to bolster our knowledge regarding the role of pets across racial/ethnic and SES groups.  These efforts will provide key information necessary for health promoting strategies and interventions that may ultimately inform policies.

The following are examples of questions that may be addressed in this FOA. This is not an exhaustive list; however in all such studies, the focus must be on the interaction between the human and animal, the influence or impact of that interaction, or in therapeutic settings, the efficacy of HAI as an intervention or adjunct to intervention.

  • Descriptive survey and secondary analysis studies examining the cross-sectional and longitudinal relationship between HAI and child development and health.
  • Biobehavioral research utilizing measures of human and animal temperament, hypothalamic-pituitary–adrenal (HPA)-axis reactivity, and genetic markers to examine the direct and indirect effects of HAI on child health and development (e.g., buffering stress, increased physical activity).
  • Studies that identify the mechanisms by which HAI impact the physical, cognitive, psychosocial, neuropsychological and neuroendocrine/neurophysiological health and development of children, including AAIs.
  • Studies that test the efficacy of AAIs on improving physical and psychosocial functioning as well as increased adaptive behaviors and social participation outcomes for individuals with intellectual, developmental, or physical disabilities, and those in need of rehabilitative services.
  • Studies that seek to determine traits and characteristics of individuals who are most or least responsive to AAIs, mediating and moderating variables, as well as aspects of the animal and the human-animal interactions that are most important for eliciting response to interventions.
  • The development of research measures, methods and technology to further the study of HAI.

Deadlines for all three:  June 27, 2017, March 30, 2018, March 30, 2019; letters of intent are due 30 days in advance of the deadline

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Filed Under: Funding Opportunities