Applying a Social Justice and Trauma-informed Lens to Animal Welfare Considerations
Summary: A deeper understanding of the role of trauma, and the way that experiences of marginalization contribute to trauma, has lead to some paradigmatic shifts in human psychology. Trauma-informed thinking and social justice principles can also inform the way we think about the human-animal bond, both between individuals and as part of larger-scale global initiatives. This article explores some ways that an interdisciplinary, welfare-based perspective about the way humans relate to animals can benefit both sides of the relationship.
Within the various professional disciplines that comprise the field of human-animal interactions, there exists an evolution of thought and practice surrounding how we choose to partner with or work alongside animals. Research has trended towards a generally agreed upon consensus surrounding ethical and welfare-enhancing husbandry and training methodologies.1,2,3 Animal cognition and ethological studies have been able to translate findings into easily understandable welfare, husbandry, and training practices, which have the potential to benefit animals globally.4,5,6,7,8 An interdisciplinary approach to animal welfare has the potential to improve outcomes not solely for the animals, but also for the humans with whom they share their lives. Through exploration of macro level global initiatives involving human and animal health and wellbeing, a multisystems perspective can be applied for more targeted welfare outcomes on a micro and mezzo level.
Social justice and global wellbeing
Social justice and general wellbeing are important aspects of physical and physiological health. The United Nations’ International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESR) highlights various human rights-based considerations, including within Article 12 of the ICESR document, “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.”9 While this specific document focuses solely on the human side of the human-animal bond, it should be noted that when human psychological and physiological needs are fulfilled, there exists the potential for self-actualization. Borrowing from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, originally conceived in 1954 and further developed in 1970, when basic needs are met, self-esteem and feelings of belonging can develop, ultimately lending themselves to the desire to pursue exploration of knowledge, understanding, and the ability to transcend beyond the individual self.10
More recently, the United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs has developed 17 sustainable development goals for 2030.11 Amongst the laudable global goals listed within the sustainable development goals document, there is written, “We envisage a world in which…humanity lives in harmony with nature and in which wildlife and other living species are protected.” Along these lines exist the One Health and more recently the One Welfare movement. The One Health movement, first conceptualized as a human and animal global health initiative, has evolved into a robust network of epidemiological, medical, and various other professions supporting interdisciplinary study surrounding the security of global health.12
The focus on the human-animal bond as considered under the umbrella of the One Health initiative has evolved further via the One Welfare movement. In consideration of these movements, “It is difficult to separate the welfare of an animal from the health of an animal.”13 Within the One Welfare framework, subsections include “the connections between human and animal abuse and neglect,” “the social implications of improved animal welfare,” “animal health and welfare, human well-being, food security and sustainability,” “assisted interventions involving animals, humans and the environment,” and “connections between biodiversity, the environment, animal welfare and human well-being.”14
Both the One Health and One Welfare frameworks consider the environment of human- and animalkind, including conservation, environmental health, and ecosystem health. The challenge at hand within these frameworks is that health and mental health, regardless of species, cannot be fulfilled without an environment of safety and care. In a world where human rights are not universally upheld or acknowledged amongst our own species, this limitation in societal fulfillment ripples into our global relationship with animals. Understanding mankind and animalkind’s transgenerational traumas, creating space for conversation, support, and collaboration in how we all move forward, is a step towards future healing.
Butler et al. (2011) highlight trauma-informed principles as “safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration, and empowerment.”15 The principles of trauma-informed care were created in response to increased awareness of the effects of trauma on human populations. Trauma can be defined as “a single event, multiple events, or a set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically and emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well being.”16
This definition of trauma and its effects could also hold true for other species in response to traumatic experiences. From a neurobiological perspective, the neuroendocrine mechanisms that are involved when physical and psychological safety are established, allowing for choice, trust, and increased confidence in inter-relational dynamics, help to provide foundation for creating neural pathways that improve self-regulation and co-regulation. The more opportunities that create an environment of care and safety, the more opportunities for regulation and improved responses.
Utilizing psychological frameworks to positively influence neurobiological processes allows for the creation of corrective experiences in human and animal functioning. Increasing the prevalence of trauma-informed principles in varied professional disciplines, settings, and daily interpersonal interactions would allow for the establishment of mutually agreed upon standards of interaction. The practice of being increasingly aware of the prevalence of those affected by traumatic experiences, as well as how to work to mitigate further negative traumatic experiences or triggers of past trauma, in turn creates an environment of care, kindness, and a focus on the interconnectedness of life on this planet.
Strategies that enhance the welfare of human and animal wellbeing exist on a micro, mezzo, and macro level of policy and practice development. Practitioners who facilitate individual and group-level interventions are able to provide trauma-informed interactions with humans and animals. Trauma-informed treatment and trauma-informed care can exist in coordination with one another or independently, dependent upon the nature of the intervention tailored to the individual or individuals for whom the sessions are designed. Within the mezzo level of policy and practice, organizations representing human health service, organizations specifically focused within the human-animal bond and human-animal interactions, as well as animal behavior and training organizations and professional entities, inform current foundational awareness and practice standards.
The macro level holds the strongest potential and highest level of complexities in securing exponential positive change on a global scale for humans and animals. Within the areas of behavior and training, publications, codes of ethics, and white papers exist that have greatly enhanced animal welfare.17-22 Similarly, organizations focused on interactions of human health/mental health professional disciplines that incorporate animals have furthered welfare considerations through their own white papers, policy statements, and professional practice requirements.23-27 These mezzo level developments continue to enhance micro level service delivery while also providing a strong foundation for macro level policy and practice guidelines to be established on a global scale.
The interdisciplinary aspects inherent within human-animal interactions make it a field both rich in opportunity and potential information, as well as challenging to contain within the bounds of any one educational or professional realm. The human disciplines of physical health (nursing, physical therapy, human medicine, epidemiology, etc.), mental health (psychology, psychiatry, social work, counseling, etc.), and policy (governmental, non-governmental organizations, international and national agencies, etc.) each have their own nuanced and organized systems. Also existing within this large field of study are animal behaviorists, ethologists, veterinary professionals, professionals focused on animal ethics, etc. None of these systems or disciplines are perfect, and they are continuously evolving in terms of how they enhance outcomes for humans and/or animals. Systemic change can only occur when individuals, groups, and communities provide ongoing collaboration and feedback surrounding what problematic gaps continue to exist, as well as solution-focused considerations for how to evaluate alternative or additional strategies and their implementation.
While the prevalence and adoptability of animal welfare-enhancing training and husbandry techniques have expanded over the past two decades, there still exist challenges for continued dissemination.22 The same can be said of human welfare-enhancing practices and policy changes.28 Multi-level systems perspectives and collaborative processes have potential to continue to effect positive change, however the mutuality of each level of function, profession, and species require a delicate balance of awareness via both intended and unintended ripple effects of policy and practice outcomes. The exploration of evidence-based strategies and inclusion of implementation science creates opportunity for incorporation of multiple perspectives, targeted approaches, and interdisciplinary feedback surrounding outcomes generated from those approaches. Interdisciplinary approaches within the field of human-animal interactions have immense potential. For example, creating opportunities for dissemination and implementation of information gleaned from research into the human and animal systems supported by governmental and non-governmental organizations allows for better information flow to the general public and in turn creates benefit on multiple levels. Similarly, for-profit and nonprofit organizations each play integral roles in information sharing and service delivery. Information derived from scholarly research can be readily accessible to individuals, agency stakeholders, and through professional organizations, who have the ability to not only provide this necessary and beneficial information for professionals to make informed decisions, but also to provide mutually agreed upon frameworks and guidelines for how the information relates to the individual profession or area of practice. To impart principles of trauma-informed care into this mezzo level of systems creates more opportunity for discussion of how each level disseminates information to the next and builds awareness that there is no singular top-down approach for information delivery. Rather there is a continuous process of information sharing, discussion, and evolution with the ultimate benefit for human and animal wellbeing. Interdisciplinary conferences, collaborative committees and task forces, and scholarly books and articles with professionals discussing varied vantage points from within their respective disciplines all add value and purpose to creating positive progress.
On an individual level, animal behavior professionals can incorporate trauma-informed principles into their work with the humans they encounter in addition to the animals themselves. According to the National Center for PTSD, “About 6 of every 10 men (or 60%) and 5 of every 10 women (or 50%) experience at least one trauma in their lives.”29 The statistics for diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are much lower due to many factors; however, the prevalence of individuals being exposed to traumatic experiences warrants consideration of how professionals in various fields can improve service delivery to enhance positive outcomes and decreasing the potential for re-traumatization.
Professionals involved in animal behavior can often be working not only with animals who have experienced traumatic events, but also humans who may have a history of trauma themselves. Animal behavior professionals involved in veterinary practices have a benefit of the potential to partner with veterinary social workers, who are licensed mental health professionals educated in the intersectionality of human mental health as it pertains to animal relationships. Veterinary social workers also work within other varied areas within the field of human-animal interactions. Additional programs and centers of study focused on the intersection of human mental health and animal interactions include several courses offered by the University of Denver, University of Pennsylvania, Purdue University, Canisius College, Colorado State University, Oakland University, University of Arizona, Tufts University, and University of Tennessee. The growth of collaborative opportunities and expanded education for varied professions also provides the ability for each profession to be able to work solidly within their area of expertise in a treatment capacity with other professions, creating a milieu environment of care for the humans and animals involved. The education about and utilization of trauma-informed principles allow for the humans involved in interactions to be able to be present, self-regulated, and supported as well as creating space for acknowledging when these aspects are not in balance and fostering discussion for how these imbalances can be addressed and remedied so the animals involved can also have the same trauma-informed principles afforded to them. In creating an environment of care where humans and animals can feel safe, have choice in interactions, and gain and maintain trust in those involved in an interaction, there is empowerment for animals and humans.
The longevity of human and animal mutually beneficial existence on this planet requires human investment in sustainable policies and practices. These policies and practices require ongoing collaborative environments focused on positive growth and transformation. Consider how much change has occurred in human relationships with animals in just the last 100 years.
The United Nations’ sustainable development goals document states:
“The future of humanity and of our planet lies in our hands. It lies also in the hands of today’s younger generation who will pass the torch to future generations. We have mapped the road to sustainable development; it will be for all of us to ensure that the journey is successful and its gains irreversible”11
The future of humanity is solidly interconnected with animal welfare. We cannot move forward towards improved outcomes without our animal counterparts moving forward with us. Part of moving forward in positive progress is an acknowledgement in the historical traumas for human and non-human animals alike and a focus on trauma-informed, habilitative practices and policy decisions aimed towards accountability, collaboration, and humane considerations for others.
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- Pfaller-Sadovsky, N. et al (2020). What’s in a click? The efficacy of conditioned reinforcement in applied animal training: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Animals, 10:10, 1757.
- Bray, E.E. et al (2021) Dog cognitive development: a longitudinal study across the first 2 years of life. Animal Cognition 24, 311–328
- Fenner, K., et al (2020). Validation of the equine behaviour assessment and research questionnaire (E-BARQ): A new survey instrument for exploring and monitoring the domestic equine triad. Animals, 10(11), 1982.
- Gnanadesikan, G. E. et al (2020). Breed differences in dog cognition associated with brain-expressed genes and neurological functions. Integrative and comparative biology, 60:4, 976-990.
- Rooney, N. J., & Cowan, S. (2011). Training methods and owner–dog interactions: links with dog behaviour and learning ability. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 132:3-4, 169-177.
- Zupan, M., Štuhec, I., & Jordan, D. (2020). The effect of an irregular feeding schedule on equine behavior. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 23:2, 156-163.
- United Nations. (1966). International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
- McLeod, S. (2007). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Simply psychology, 1, 1-8.
- UN SDGs. (2015). Transforming our world: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. A/RES/70/1.
- Zinsstag, J. et al (2011). From “one medicine” to “one health” and systemic approaches to health and well-being. Preventive veterinary medicine 101:3-4, 148-156.
- Bourque T. (2017). One Welfare. The Canadian Veterinary Journal, 58:3, 217–218.
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- Butler, L. D., Crtelli, F. M., & Rinfrette, E. S. (2011). Trauma-informed care and mental health. Directions in Psychiatry, 31, 197-210.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2014). Trauma-informed care in behavioral health services. Treatment improvement protocol (TIP) Series 57.
- American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB). (2007). AVSAB position statement on the use of punishment for behavior modification in animals.
- American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB). (2009). AVSAB position statement on the use of dominance theory in behavior modification of animals.
- Friedman, S. (2009). What’s wrong with this picture? Effectiveness is not enough. Journal of Applied Companion Animal Behavior, 3:1, 41-45.
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- Jegatheesan, B. et al (2014-2018). The IAHAIO definitions for animal assisted intervention and guidelines for wellness of animals involved in AAI. IAHAIO White Paper.
- Kazdin, A. E. (2019). Methodological standards and strategies for establishing the evidence base of animal-assisted interventions. Handbook on animal-assisted therapy: Foundations and guidelines for animal assisted interventions, 451-463.
- Stewart, L. A. et al (2016). Animal-assisted therapy in counseling competencies. American Counseling Association: The Center for Counseling Practice, Policy, and Research.
- Wensley, S. et al (2020). Advancing animal welfare and ethics in veterinary practice through a national pet wellbeing task force, practice-based champions and clinical audit. The Veterinary Record, 187:8, 316.
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- Butler, L.D., Critelli, F.M., & Carello, J. (2019). Trauma and human rights; integrating approaches to address human suffering. Palgrave McMillan, Switzerland.
- U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. How common is PTSD in adults? National Center for PTSD.
Heather White, LMSW is a Doctor of Social Work Student at the University at Buffalo and owner of AIM HAI, LLC. Heather has worked in the area of human-animal interactions for over a decade, focusing on canine and equine interactions. Heather holds a Master of Social Work from Hunter College, a certificate in Animals and Human Health and Equine Assisted Mental Health through the University of Denver’s Institute for Human Animal Connection, a certificate in Treating Animal Abuse through Arizona State University, a certificate in Veterinary Social Work through the University of Tennessee, and various canine and equine-focused organization-based training certifications.