For sexual and gender minority emerging adults, living with pets can be an important influence on identity development and related well-being by facilitating feelings of belonging, positive self-regard and purpose, by promoting social interactions, and by providing emotional support and comfort to cope with stress.
At the same time, however, pets can also be a source of psychological stress and caregiving burden for this population, which includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and other sexual and gender identities.
These were the findings of “‘He was like, my ride or die’: Sexual and Gender Minority Emerging Adults’ Perspectives on Living With Pets During the Transition to Adulthood,” a study published in June in the journal Emerging Adulthood.
The study was led by Shelby McDonald, Ph.D., who until recently was an associate professor in the School of Social Work at Virginia Commonwealth University and is now the incoming director of research at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The study’s co-authors include VCU social work doctoral students Angela Matijczak, Jennifer Murphy and Camie Tomlinson, as well as VCU undergraduate and graduate students, and researchers at the University of Denver, the University of Florida and the University of Michigan.
The qualitative study investigated the benefits and risks associated with living with companion animals by interviewing 117 sexual and gender minority youth living in the U.S.
A number of themes emerged from the interviews. These included benefits such as: pets as a buffer to stress, pets as social capital, pets as a coping mechanism for mental health, and pets as identity and purpose. Risks, meanwhile, included caregiver burden, pets as barriers to relationships, and animal-related psychological stress.
“Sexual and gender minority emerging adults are at risk for experiencing additional stressors (such as victimization, rejection, discrimination) due to oppressive cis-heteronormative societal attitudes and structures,” Matijczak said. “This additional stress may lead to mental health symptoms. Pet ownership and interactions with pets provide benefits that may help people cope with stress and improve psychosocial health (fewer mental health symptoms, higher self-esteem). On the other hand, the results of our studies (and other qualitative studies) also suggest that pet ownership may contribute to stress.”
To address health disparities, she added, it is important to consider how pet ownership might provide unique benefits and risks among sexual and gender minority emerging adults.
All of the study’s participants described receiving some benefit from the relationship with their pet or pets. Nearly 75% said they consider their pet to be a source of support that helps them cope with LGBTQ-related stressors, such as discrimination, rejection and microaggressions from their peers and family members.
Nearly 90% of participants also talked about the stress related to owning a pet.
“While the benefits of pet ownership and the human-animal bond are frequently discussed in research and popular news media, it is also important to consider the stressors associated with pet ownership,” Murphy said.
“The study’s findings that pets can provide an important form of social support and comfort during times of stress, but also are a cause of stress due to financial and housing concerns and worry about the pets’ health and well-being, could provide valuable information for those working with sexual and gender minority emerging adults,” Tomlinson said.
“Clinicians, community organizations and researchers working with this population should consider pets and the role they play in emerging adults’ lives,” Tomlinson said. “For example, community supports — [such as] pet-friendly rental housing, low-cost veterinary care and services — may help to mitigate some of the stressors reported.”
“While the benefits of pet ownership and the human-animal bond are frequently discussed in research and popular news media, it is also important to consider the stressors associated with pet ownership.”
The research was conducted through VCU’s Children, Families, & Animals Research Group, which focuses on research that examines human- and animal-directed violence and the role of family pets in resilience processes of children and youth who experience, or are at risk of experiencing, interpersonal, family and/or community violence.
The study is believed to be the first to qualitatively explore the benefits and risks of pet ownership among the sexual and gender minority emerging adult population.
The study’s co-authors included Nicole Nicotera, Ph.D., a professor in the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver; and Liza Kremer, a master’s degree student in the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver; Jennifer Applebaum, a sociology doctoral student at the University of Florida; VCU social work master’s degree student Laura Booth; Ryan O’Ryan, a psychology and sociology major in the College of Humanities and Sciences at VCU; and Shanna Kattari, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work.
“We would like to acknowledge the students who worked as project coordinators and research assistants, helped with interviews, analyzed data and contributed to the paper,” Tomlinson said. “One of the best parts of working with Dr. McDonald has been getting to work with the [Children, Families, & Animals Research Group] team. This paper, and the larger study, has truly been a collaborative effort.”
The research was funded by the VCU Presidential Research Quest Fund and the publication was supported by a National Institutes of Health Health Disparities Loan Repayment Program Award through the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
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