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Introduction: Human-animal interaction science is a growing field, largely due to the potential psychosocial benefits companion animals provide to humans. One way companion animals may influence psychosocial outcomes is through their ability to provide emotional comfort, though few studies have examined relationships between sexual and gender minority stressors (i.e. discrimination, victimization, rejection), human-animal interaction, and psychological wellbeing. To address this gap in the literature, the current study evaluates whether, and to what extent, the association between gender-based victimization and psychological wellbeing (i.e., anxiety, depression, self-esteem) varies as a function of emotional comfort from companion animals among emerging adults.

Methods: Data were collected from young people between the ages of 18 and 21 years who self-identified as a sexual and/or gender minority (N = 134; 37.3% ethnic/racial minority; 49.2% gender minority; 98.5% sexual minority). We conducted three simple moderation analyses that examined whether, and to what extent, gender-based victimization was associated with mental health (i.e., anxiety, depression, self-esteem) as a function of comfort from companion animals. Additive multiple moderation models were also conducted to examine comfort from companion animals and social support as moderators between victimization and each psychological wellbeing indicator.

Results: Results of the simple moderation models suggest that the effect of gender-based victimization on self-esteem was moderated by comfort from companion animals (ΔR2 = .03, F(1, 125) = 4.66, β = .22, t(125) = 2.16, p = .03) and that the relationship is statistically significant only at low levels of comfort from companion animals (β = -0.38, t = -2.41, p = .02). Further, our additive multiple moderation model with both comfort from companion animals and social support as moderators of the relation between victimization and self-esteem found that victimization was significantly moderated by comfort from animals (ΔR2 = .03, F(1, 123) = 5.38, β = .24, t(123) = 2.32, p = .02), but not social support. The relation between victimization and self-esteem was significant and negative at low levels of comfort from companion animals, but only for those with high levels of social support (β = -0.43, t = -2.65, p < .01). In contrast, when high levels of comfort from companion animals were reported, the effect of victimization on self-esteem was no longer statistically significant, regardless of whether social support was low or high. We did not find evidence of moderation in models with either anxiety or depression as the dependent variable.

Conclusion: These results suggest that high levels of comfort from companion animals may be a protective factor against the harmful effects of victimization on self-esteem. However, our results suggest that comfort from companion animals may not provide the same benefits for anxiety and depression. Further research is needed to replicate our results and to elucidate whether other aspects of HAI, such as attachment to pets or caretaking for pets, may play a role in associations between victimization and anxiety and depression. Given the harmful effects of gender-based victimization and other stressful circumstances that LGBTQ+ youth are disproportionately at risk of experiencing (i.e., employment issues, housing insecurity), this study highlights the importance of exploring how, and for whom, comfort from companion animals and other aspects of HAI may provide protective benefits.


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human-animal interaction, LGBTQ+, mental health, victimization, social support


Social Work

Faculty Advisor/Mentor

Shelby McDonald

Is Part Of

VCU Graduate Research Posters

Victimization and Psychological Wellbeing among Sexual and Gender Minority Emerging Adults: Testing the Moderating Role of Emotional Comfort from Companion Animals

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Social Work Commons