Research into Human-Animal-Environment Relationships

The Institute for Human-Animal Connection's (IHAC) research explores how human-animal interactions affect individual and community health and well-being. Our work is conducted within a framework of social justice and equity for humans, other species, and the environment we share.

IHAC Staff with Farm Animals, at Animal Assisted Therapy and Nature Assisted Therapy

Human-Animal Interactions and Mental Health

This area of our research seeks to understand how interactions with other species affect people’s mental health. Our studies focus on youth in clinical treatment, military veterans with PTSD, people participating in dog training programs while in prison, and adults with companion animals. 

Youth in Mental Health Treatment

  • Does including animal-assisted and other nature-based interventions in residential treatment improve developmental outcomes for youth? IHAC is conducting research at Green Chimneys, a school and treatment facility that is world renowned for incorporating these interventions throughout their clients’ clinical treatment. Using the Positive Youth Development framework, IHAC is showing that the Green Chimneys experience supports students’ improved social-emotional functioning. This research is creating an evidence base for incorporating animal-assisted and nature-based interventions into clinical treatment of youth at Green Chimneys that can be applied in other environments.

Service Dogs for Military Veterans with PTSD

  • How do service dogs impact veterans’ post-traumatic stress (PTSD) symptoms? While there is a growing body of evidence showing that service dogs improve some of the symptoms of PTSD, IHAC is delving deep into the biology of how this human-animal interaction leads to improved lives for military veterans. Our study also investigates impacts on service dog health and well-being. This research is anticipated to generate new biomarkers for tracking clinical changes to PTSD symptoms, novel targets for drug development, and blood panels that can be used to optimize protocols for keeping service dogs healthy and thriving.

Prison-Based Dog Training Programs

  • How does participating in dog training programs affect outcomes for people in prison? IHAC’s research has shown that dog training program participants have a 15% lower likelihood of returning to prison after release. Our research is also revealing a variety of potential reasons for this improvement, including greater empathy from working with people of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds on dog training teams. This research provides an important foundation of evidence that these programs improve the lives of both the people in prison and the dogs in these programs.

Adults with Companion Animals

  • How do our companion animals affect our mental health? While most people accept the idea that our relationships with our pets reduce our stress levels, IHAC’s research suggests that they may actually keep us in a healthy zone of response to everyday stressful situations. With over half of U.S. households including dogs and cats, this research is adding nuance to our understanding of how our relationships with these companions may increase human health and well-being.

Pets Access to Care Research Study Team with Pet Smart Charities

Human-Animal Interactions and Equity

This area of our research seeks to understand inequity experienced by individuals and families who live with companion animals.  Our studies focus on the effects of creating access to veterinary care, the impacts of animal law enforcement on communities, and best practices for animal sheltering.

Access to Veterinary Care

  • What are the most effective ways to create equitable access to veterinary care for families living in under-resourced and historically marginalized communities? IHAC is conducting research with partners, including The Humane Society of the United States’ Pets for Life, PetSmart Charities, and Tufts University, to understand what barriers exist and how to most effectively eliminate them to create opportunities for all families to access care for their companion animals. Further, we are showing how creating equitable access to veterinary care affects human, community, and environmental health, within the One Health framework. This research supports the development of public policies that include access to health care for companion animals as well as people.

Animal Law Enforcement

  • Do animal control agencies engage equitably with the jurisdictions they serve? IHAC is conducting research using data provided by large municipal animal control agencies to understand enforcement patterns and trends across jurisdictions. Our findings show that animal laws and ordinances are not only enforced at higher rates in historically marginalized communities, but also members of those communities experience more punitive outcomes. Further, a community’s racial and ethnic makeup was found to be the strongest driver behind the measured differences. This research is contributing to the conversation about how animal welfare agencies of all types can better engage with under resourced and historically marginalized communities. 

Animal Sheltering

  • How do best animal sheltering policies and practices increase equity for the community they serve? IHAC is conducting research in animal shelters to understand how their ability to effectively engage with all the communities they serve affects outcomes for both shelter animals and the greater community. IHAC’s work in this area continues to inform shelter policies and practices across the U.S.

What's New with the IHAC Research Team

Selected Publications

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IHAC's Research Team

Jenni Forkin Headshot

Jenni Forkin

Research Fellow, Institute for Human-Animal Connection

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Jaci Gandengerger

Jaci Gandenberger

Research Associate II, Institute for Human-Animal Connection

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Kevin Morris

Kevin Nolan Morris

Research Professor

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Liana Moss Headshot

Liana Moss

Research Associate II, Institute for Human-Animal Connection

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Marisa Motiff

Marisa Motiff

Research Associate II, Institute for Human-Animal Connection

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Kaleigh O'Reilly headshot

Kaleigh O'Reilly

Research Fellow, Institute for Human-Animal Connection

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Sashiel Pina photo

Sashiel Pina

Research Associate, Institute for Human-Animal Connection

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Ximena Salgado-Santamaria Headshot

Ximena Salgado-Santamaria

Research Associate II, Institute for Human-Animal Connection

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Affiliated Researchers

Sarah Bexell

Sarah Bexell

Clinical Professor; Faculty Director, Center of Sustainability

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Nina Ekholm-Fry

Nina Ekholm Fry

Director of Equine Programs, Institute for Human-Animal Connection

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