Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) & Human-Animal Interaction

child dressed as a superhero with arm around dog who is wearing a cape

Principal investigator: Shelby E. McDonald, Ph.D.

The goal of this study is two-fold:

  1. to develop and pilot a new measure of children’s exposure to animal maltreatment
  2. to examine relations between adverse childhood experiences, HAI and child adjustment

Clarifying relations between human-animal interaction (HAI) and child adjustment in the context of adverse childhood experiences is critical for understanding how animals in the home impact children’s development. HAI may confer both protective effects and pose additional risks to children’s development and wellbeing. It is well documented that exposure to animal maltreatment (AM) is prevalent and frequently co-occurs with other forms of adversity. Although prior research links childhood AM exposure with short- and long-term maladjustment, the majority of prior research has relied on an overly simplistic dichotomous index that does not address the complexity of AM exposure and/or fails to account for co-occurring adverse experiences. The lack of a reliable and valid instrument has hindered efforts to delineate how AM exposure and positive aspects of HAI (e.g., bonds with pets) interact and influence children’s development in the context of co-occurring adversities.

This project has two goals designed to address these limitations and advance pediatric research: 1) to develop the Youth Checklist of Animal-Related Experiences (CARE-Y), a new measure of exposure to AM that is valid and reliable for use with children and adolescents, and 2) to use the CARE-Y to collect pilot data to lay the groundwork for a longitudinal R01 that will more rigorously test risk and protective effects of HAI on relations between childhood adversity and child health and development. We will use scientifically rigorous approaches to establish an ecologically relevant measure grounded in the experiences of children that adequately captures the complexity of this construct in a diverse sample.

Our study will advance pediatric public health knowledge by providing a better understanding of the potential risk and protective effects of HAI on children’s adjustment. Further, the resulting instrument could prove to be a useful tool to identify youth at risk for other forms of childhood adversity.

This study involves collaboration with Greater Richmond SCAN, VCU Child Protection Team and Richmond Animal Care and Control.