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Social Work Researcher Makes Connection Between Pet Ownership and Wellness

Rauktis, wearing a Pitt fleece, leaning on a table that's piled with big bags of pet food
Food security issues — along with a love for animals — have been on Mary Beth Rauktis’ radar for years.

A longtime volunteer for Animal Friends, the Pitt School of Social Work professor donates an occasional 50-pound bag of dog food to an Oakland food bank as part of the Animal Friends’ Chow Wagon Program, designed to help food bank clients feed their pets.

While at the facility one winter day, the professor mentioned to an elderly patron that there was pet food available.

“I’m so happy to hear that,” the woman replied, seizing Rauktis’ hand. “My cat is always hungry and I’ve been feeding her hot dogs.”

As Rauktis led the cat owner to the area where pet food was kept, she began thinking:

Is this true at other pantries? Are people sacrificing food for themselves to feed their pets?

An initial survey of local food bank volunteers conducted by Rauktis confirmed people did indeed pick up extra fish, turkey and chicken products when they ran out of traditional pet food at home.

Intrigued, Rauktis applied for and received the Florence Stier Endowed Fund School of Social Work Award to conduct a more thorough, cross-sectional survey at 15 food banks in Allegheny County that offered pet food and 15 that did not. She and four Pitt School of Social Work students talked to nearly 400 people at the facilities over a 16-month period.

The data showed people with pets actually had fewer food security issues than those without pets. Forty-five percent of the pet owners group felt food secure, defined as having consistent access to enough food for an active healthy life. Only 32 percent of the group without pets felt that way.

“These pet owners were good stewards of their animals,” said Rauktis. “They worked hard to keep food on the table and in the dog dish.”

Rauktis says she sees food bank clients walking up hills, lugging collapsible food carts onto buses or waiting outside for pantry doors to open in pouring rain or six inches of snow. They clip coupons and watch for sales. One pet owner, whose dog needed special food, said her family relinquished its cable package and stopped eating at restaurants in order to afford the higher-priced chow.

“Mary Beth’s study has given validity to what our hearts have known all along,” said Jenn Geibel, Chow Wagon director. “Her studies have proven that commitment to these four-legged family members often takes precedence over one’s own needs.”

Rauktis learned about the strong attachment between people and their pets: “The pet owners speak of dogs and cats in human terms. These animals are included in family portraits,” she said.

two women unloading bags of pet food from a hatchback trunk
Another research finding was that people said their pets motivated them to live a healthier lifestyle. The pet owners were up and out the door to walk their dogs. They got more exercise, their children got involved with pet care and the families engaged with neighbors more often than non-pet owners. Widows talked about how having a pet helped them deal with their grief.

According to the Pet Trade Association, 68 percent of American households have pets. The local numbers are almost identical — in Rauktis’ survey, 66 percent of respondents said they owned a pet.

So, she wondered, why aren’t we thinking more about four-legged friends’ wellness benefits for humans?

Spurred by her initial findings, Rauktis has now applied for a grant to test the feasibility of a new curriculum that’s been developed in Ontario, Canada, for family practitioners called the Pet Positive Toolkit.

In the program, a team of social workers or nurses teach people new pet-focused activities in their own homes to improve the patients’ health. This could mean demonstrating calming exercises with pets that develop mindfulness and ease stress, or encouraging patients to use pets to create more connections in their lives, whether in dog-walking groups or in pet-friendly cafes.

Furthermore, if a doctor is encouraging a patient to stop smoking, for example, and knows the patient has a cat, she could express concern about how the smoking is affecting the cat. She could suggest thinking about what they could do to protect the cat and the patient. The result, the Ontario team has found, is an enhanced doctor-patient rapport.

As far as Rauktis is concerned, she wants to test the feasibility of a similar domestic pet-centered intervention in Pittsburgh.

Will pet owners let social workers into their homes to discuss it? Will they engage? Can students deliver it with minimal supervision? Rauktis is eager to find out.

“I want to improve human and animal welfare,” said Rauktis. “People are starting to talk more about this. Even everyday animals in people’s homes can be agents of health.”