Complexities in the Human-Animal Bond: An Interview with Dr. Anna Chur-Hansen
Dr. Anna Chur-Hansen is a registered psychologist and professor at the University of Adelaide in South Australia. Much of her research is related to the human-animal bond and she was kind enough to take some time and share her experiences and current research with us.
Dr. Chur-Hansen’s interest in the human-animal bond grew from her personal background experience of growing up on a farm where she was always surrounded by animals. She grew up having pet dogs, cats, and birds among other farm animals, including lambs. Her personal background with animals encouraged her to pursue further research with the human-animal bond in her psychology field. Her main interest is in how people and animals live together, and the health implications from that bond. The human-animal bond is a broad subject and has led her to consider various, curious questions regarding to humans and animals. She has long had an interest in human-animal relations, particularly with companion animals. Most of her human-animal bond research is underpinned by the theory of attachment.
Dr. Chur-Hansen has conducted extensive research on various topics within the human-animal bond. In her first study on human-animal research, she conducted a qualitative study with elderly women suffering from mental health issues. She observed their emotional behavior as they interacted with dogs, and found that many of the patients were reminded of their own pets. This resulted in a growing interest in a number of different areas including, the human-animal bond at the end of life for both the animal and human. She has studied veterinary clinic staff and how they cope with their work, as well as the grief and loss exhibited by humans at the death of a pet and how the pet is remembered. Unlike in the United States, in Australia there are few pet cemeteries and funeral rites for pets are uncommon. The same can be said for animals utilized in hospital therapies, and she has conducted research on having animals in hospitals and the health implications that brings. Furthermore, she has interest in guide dogs and their fostering. One of her PhD students, Chris Muldoon, is currently studying the bond between vision-impaired people and their dogs.
A surprising aspect that she has taken away from her research is while it is generally accepted that animals are good for you, it is difficult to replicate those results in research studies. She has found that the human-animal bond is not quite as straightforward or easy as traditional research methods might suggest. There are not direct relationships between humans and animals, and attachment levels have to be taken into account. Having too low, but also too high of an attachment level can have detrimental effects on both the human and animal. Dr. Chur-Hansen believes the human-animal bond needs to be more rigorously studied with a strong, well-designed research plan that accounts for all the variables. She also stressed the importance of also making sure the animal’s health is being taken into account as well as the human’s.
The most rewarding aspect of her research has been meeting other people with animals and hearing their own pet experiences. The human-animal bond is a valid relationship and she likes hearing about how human and animals work together. She also enjoys being an advocate and sharing the message about the significance of the human-animal bond.
Currently, Dr. Chur-Hansen is working with one of her PhD students, Lian Hill, on a study of resilience in the human-animal bond and how animal interactions can promote good mental health. She is also working with health care professionals to bring animals into hospitals.