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I’ve always been very interested in how what we know about human-non-human relationships, often monetized as the human-animal bond, can have practical applications that help humans and non-humans who are involved in animal-assisted therapy (AAT). I work closely with the Institute for Human-Animal Connection (IHAC) which is located at the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver. So I was thrilled to read Dr. Katherine Compitus’ new book. The human-animal bond in the clinical practice of social work, in which the human-animal bond is portrayed as a dynamic and mutually beneficial relationship between people and the animals in their care.
I learned a lot from Kathy’s book and here’s what she had to say about how people in crisis can take care of their pets too.
Marc Bekoff: Why did you write The Human-Animal Bond in Clinical Social Work Practice?
KC: I was a social worker for a long time, and when I started this career path, I noticed that there was little information available on helping people in crisis who have pets. . For example, most hospitals still don’t ask people if they have any pets during an intake interview. This means that if a person requires emergency hospitalization, the animal may be left alone for days or weeks simply because no one thought to ask. It is hard enough to recover from a medical or psychological illness in hospital; can you imagine the added stress people feel knowing their beloved pet is in pain? I’ve always had an affinity with animals and I know animals can be a huge source of emotional support. There is a lack of services that help people in crisis who have pets, and I want to help remedy this situation.
MB: What is the link between your book and your background and your areas of interest?
KC: I am a clinical social worker and animal behaviorist. I have worked in psychiatric hospitals and with people of all ages, ethnicities and populations and a variety of medical and mental conditions. My roots are deep in clinical social work, psychology, but I also have a master’s degree in animal behavior and conservation. (People sometimes forget that humans are an animal species!) Basically, I merged the two areas that interest me the most. It’s a bit like comparative psychology, but really my work is about the dynamics of the human-animal bond. The human-animal bond changes in every culture, but it exists in all cultures and it fascinates me. I am interested in learning how we as a species on this planet can live cooperatively with other species of animals in a mutually beneficial relationship. We need to look more at how to live in peace with animals and change a society that, unfortunately, too often benefits some while exploiting others.
MB: Who is your target audience?
KC: Anyone interested in the human-animal bond! I would say it’s primarily for mental health professionals and animal welfare scientists, sociologists, psychologists, public health scientists, and political scientists. Really, there’s something for everyone in this book. I’ve written about how to implement welfare policies that involve people with pets, but also how to implement animal-assisted therapy for people who are new to this treatment model. There’s even a bit of history; I’m sure many people will be interested to learn that Dr. Sigmund Freud was actually one of the first animal-assisted therapists! Just like the famous nurse Florence Nightingale and even the philosopher John Locke believed in the healing power of the human-animal bond.
MB: What are some of the topics that you weave into your book and what are some of your main messages?
KC: I discuss crisis intervention, bereavement counseling, veterinary social work, animal-assisted therapy, and zooeyia, among other topics. I think the main message I’m trying to get across is that human social welfare issues are animal welfare issues, because the two are absolutely intertwined and interdependent. We share this planet and cannot ignore each other. When we help pets thrive and survive, we’re also helping their human family members. We cannot care for animals or humans in isolation and must consider them part of the family unit, just as we would a mother, sibling or any other family member.
MB: How does your book differ from others that deal with some of the same general topics?
KC: There are some great books on human-animal bonding (HAB), but the vast majority of HAB books are written by psychologists, ethologists or ecologists. They provide vital information but I realized there were very few HAB books with a social work perspective. Social work is different from psychology in that we take a strengths-based perspective and look at the person in their environment. We use a biopsychosocial framework, which means we consider a person’s biology, psychology and social environment.
It is one of the only books on HAB that takes a social work perspective and as such discusses practical ways to help people in crisis who have pets. I discuss how to help the homeless with pets and people fleeing domestic violence situations who have pets, but also more clinical topics such as the high rate of depression among vets and how to provide bereavement counseling to people with pets. I like to think of this book as a great gateway to discovering the different ways we can help people care for their pets (so that their pets can continue to care for them in return! ).
MB: What are some of your current projects?
KC: I’m writing a book about animal hoarding, a very serious public health issue that affects entire communities and seems to go largely unnoticed. It also crosses cultural boundaries, which is an interesting psychological phenomenon. I want to know what causes people to hoard animals and how can we help them stop and recover from this disease. Animals suffer and die badly in hoarding houses and people also suffer badly in those same houses. There is also a high rate of recidivism in animal hoarding, which means that even if we remove animals, people will collect more animals. Unfortunately, there is little information on the treatment of animal grabbers, and I want to develop a concrete treatment plan.