Creature Comforts

A Tufts researcher studies how our special relationships with the animals in our lives sustain, soothe and heal us

Megan Kiely Mueller in the classroom

Guests at Megan Kiely Mueller’s wedding had no doubt about the importance of animals in the bride’s life. Wearing a collar of roses, Jett, her adopted black Labrador retriever mix, led Mueller down the aisle.

“As a part of our family,” Mueller says, “it was only right that he was part of our wedding.”

Close relationships with animals have been a constant in her life, and now Mueller, A08, G10, G13, who recently completed her Ph.D. in child development at Tufts, is focused on the science that underpins how animals and people help each other. Her doctoral dissertation examines the ways in which human-animal interactions mold healthy development in childhood and adolescence—from building character to community involvement to success in the classroom.

“People in general, and youth in particular, feel an incredibly strong, emotional connection to animals,” she says, “and understanding the nature of these relationships is critically important” for designing programs and policies that support positive benefits for people and animals.

“I think this is an understudied but highly significant area of human development,” says Richard M. Lerner, the Bergstrom Chair in Applied Developmental Science in Tufts’ Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development, who was Mueller’s Ph.D. advisor.

“We don’t have a rich developmental data set to understand the role of animals in promoting positive development or as a therapeutic tool, and not enough evidence from such research to build good programs in health promotion or disease prevention” or to shape policies to enhance animal welfare, he says.

“What we need is longitudinal research, following kids repeatedly through the years, to understand the role of animals in their lives,” Lerner says. In this evolving field of social science, “I think Megan is going to be one of the foundational people.”

“What’s so fun and exciting about this field,” Mueller says, “is that no matter who you talk to, they understand the power of animals in their lives.”

Mueller felt that power early on. She had a menagerie of pets growing up—cats, birds, fish—and she began riding horses at age 5. She competed on the Tufts Equestrian Team as an undergraduate and was named Intercollegiate Horse Show Association captain of the year. Her teammate, Stuart Mueller, E05, E11, not only shared her affection for horses, he fell in love with her. They married in August 2010 in Goddard Chapel on Tufts’ Medford/Somerville campus.

At one time, Mueller considered becoming a veterinarian and tested the waters in high school by participating in Adventures in Veterinary Medicine, the Cummings School’s summer career exploration program.

In the end, though, she decided she wanted to know more about the workings of the human mind; she earned a bachelor’s degree in child development and psychology at Tufts, followed by a master’s. Then, while attending a child development conference during her Ph.D. studies, she discovered a field that melded her devotion with a profession.

Brand-new Science

Mueller was energized. Could she focus her research, even her career, on human-animal relationships? She approached Lerner.

“She said, ‘What I’d really like to do is to follow my passion and build a career doing research on human-animal interaction in terms of child and adolescent development,’ ” he recalls. “And then she added, ‘Is that too crazy?’ ”

Mueller’s proposal “was definitely a brand-new idea in my department,” says Lerner. He thought it had merit: “These days in the U.S., a child is more likely to have a pet in their home than to have two parents.”

Human-animal relationships conjure up familiar images—an elderly woman cuddling with her cat, a service dog helping his blind owner navigate city streets, a show horse in competition, animals on a working farm. The rewards of those relationships are commonly recognized, albeit mostly with anecdotal evidence.

What is lacking, Mueller says, is the science—long-term and large-scale studies to produce the kind of evidence needed to guide human-animal interactions in ways that will benefit both sides.

Since the summer of 2012 Mueller has been part of an interdisciplinary team at Tufts, working on the project known as Integrated Health: Pets and People, which is staking out a research direction in human-animal interaction and perhaps even a new minor for Tufts undergraduates. The team includes faculty from the Cummings School, the School of Medicine, the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development and the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. They have expertise in human nutrition and obesity, overweight pets and animal nutrition, clinical psychology and animal behavior.

“This type of research really lends itself to interdisciplinary collaboration in a meaningful and logical way,” Mueller says.

For example, she is working with faculty at the Tufts Obesity Clinic for Animals at the Cummings School and the Center for Youth Wellness at Tufts Medical Center to develop a program that would use animals to help adolescents manage their own weight issues. Participants would learn about healthy lifestyles for pets and interact with therapy animals—“using the engaging nature of animals,” says Mueller. “Tufts is uniquely positioned to do this kind of research because of the strengths we have across all the schools.”

In the spring, Mueller and Lerner co-taught a new course in the School of Arts and Sciences called Human-Animal Interaction in Childhood and Adolescence. The course, Lerner says, generated “amazing” student interest. Typically, a new course attracts five students; this one pulled in 20. “I’ve taught a lot of new courses in the past 14 years, and I’ve never had a response like this,” he says.

The course explored how human-animal bonds can lead to positive development in children, families and communities as well as produce benefits in therapeutic settings. (Animals, especially dogs, often are used in therapy to reduce stress, heighten positive feelings and encourage communication and socialization.) The course also examined how an animal’s interactions with people affect its well-being.

“For animals that are participating in animal-assisted therapy, we need to ask: Is this a stressful experience for them, or not?” Mueller says. “How can we better measure that” and use those findings to create the best experiences for the person receiving therapy and the animal that is assisting?

Stable Bonds

Now a research assistant professor at the Cummings School, Mueller is leading a study about how animals affect youth in military families who often have to cope with multiple moves and school changes. The study, funded by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service with a matching gift from Pfizer, is examining such issues as the role of pets in promoting coping skills, creating a source of social interaction and reducing stress.

Her doctoral dissertation, which evaluated how human-animal interaction promotes healthy development in young people ages 18 to 26, has already identified some benefits of such relationships.

“I found that emotional attachment to animals was associated with higher levels of caring behavior toward others and connection to family, school and peers,” Mueller says, in addition to higher engagement in contributing to their communities by taking leadership roles, participating in community service and helping others. Youth who were involved with animals also scored higher on measures of positive character attributes and lower on measures of symptoms of depression. Another finding was that adolescents living in urban areas were half as likely to own a pet or engage in an activity that involved animals as those in more rural areas.

Mueller’s assessments were based on data from the 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development, research sponsored by the National 4-H Council in which Tufts has participated for more than a decade and with which Mueller worked as a doctoral research assistant at the Tufts Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development. The study has surveyed more than 7,000 adolescents in 42 states to determine the impact of 4-H programs on future success, from healthier lifestyle choices to academic achievement to civic engagement.

As part of the survey, adolescents were asked about the most important and meaningful activities in which they invest their time. Many of their responses focused on their interactions with animals. “That finding shows how salient” those relationships are, Lerner says. “So then the question is, What are these kids like and how are they different from other kids?”

Whether animals are pets, assist in therapy, compete and entertain or are bred for food, “these relationships also raise interesting moral issues [about] the different functions that animals [should or should not] serve for humans, and how we feel and think about those relationships,” Mueller says. “How do the different purposes of animals change our emotions and cognitions? How do we balance human well-being and animal well-being?”

As Mueller continues to study these issues, she remains sure of one thing: the importance of animals in her own life. She and her husband still ride, occasionally compete and help out at Tufts Equestrian Team events. And, of course, Jett remains an important member of their family. “He’s great,” she says, although after being invited to their wedding “he did sleep through the whole thing.”

This article first appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of Tufts Veterinary Medicine magazine.

Linda Hall is a freelance writer in Hopkinton, Mass.

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