2022 Bustad Lecture: Dr. Megan Kiely Mueller

Dr. Megan Mueller teaching in March 2022, at the College of Veterinary Medicine.

Megan Kiely Mueller, a psychologist at Tufts University, broke down the complexities behind human-animal interaction research Friday, March 25, 2022 at the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine Distinguished Bustad Lecture.

Dr. Mueller’s research, which focuses on whether human‑animal interaction can support youth with social anxiety and help children thrive, looks to understand when and how companion animals contribute to family systems. As research on the subject mounts quicker than ever before, Mueller said it is critical the effects of the human-animal bond are accurately measured and documented.

“It’s not just a person and an animal existing in isolation,” she said. “We really have to think about all of the different factors that feed into these relationships, whether it’s strength of the bond, the type of animal that we’re interacting with, or the context of the interaction — is it pet ownership, animal-assisted therapy, human-wildlife interaction? These types of factors all interact with different individual, cultural, and family attitudes about animals.”

Mueller suggested broadening the scientific scope on the subject by moving away from the general question that’s always been at the root of the research: Are animals good for us?

She said to understand the power of the human-animal bond, researchers need to start asking more pointed questions.

“What are the specific circumstances where human-animal interaction is beneficial for both the people and the animals involved?” Mueller proposed.

To properly explore research into human-animal interaction and account for all its variables, Mueller said she uses developmental science, more specifically, a developmental systems model to provide a framework and more complex way of thinking about human-animal interaction.

She highlighted benefits to using developmental science as a framework to measure human-animal interaction, including the ability to recognize the mutually influential nature of the relationships and document stability and change over time, as relationships with animals are always evolving.

Mueller also said developmental science allows for context and diverse circumstances and captures a true representation of human-animal interaction.

“What’s happening for me and my family is going to be very different than what’s happening for you and your family, and understanding that people exist in diverse types of environments is important,” she said.