Study analyzes the relationship between pets and their young LGBTQ owners

There are pros and cons to owning a pet as a marginalized individual.

cute dog wearing LGBTQ pride flag

The goal of this particular study is to focus on the younger LGBTQ population and to examine how human-animal interactions might impact a person's experience and well-being when faced with victimization over their sexual orientation or identity.

Photo by Yekatseryna Netuk on Shutterstock
  • Since 2018, an ongoing study at the VCU School of Social Work has been analyzing the way pets impact the lives of young LGBTQ individuals.
  • From animal-assisted therapy practices to having therapy dogs in schools to reduce anxiety, there are many mental health benefits to animal-human interactions.
  • While the majority of current research is being focused on people who are not discriminated against or marginalized by society, this specific study could bring more clarity to how pets positively and negatively impact the lives of young LGBTQ people.

An ongoing study at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Social Work is doing research into the ways that pets and other forms of social support can impact the lives of young LGBTQ individuals.

This study began in 2018 and has since focused on the role that animals specifically play in the lives of LGBTQ youth between the ages of 15-21 years old. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many of these interviews with individuals have been conducted via video conferences. The study parameters have even expanded, allowing for questions about what it's been like to have pets during the coronavirus lockdown.

Associate professors Shelby McDonald, Alex Wagaman, and Traci Wike work alongside a team of student researchers (including Caroline Richards and Ryan O'Ryan) to interview LGBTQ individuals on their experiences with pets and how that has impacted their lives.

Questions in these interviews include things relating to:

  • Detailing their relationship with their pets
  • Any stressors or benefits to living with a pet
  • The impact of pets during coronavirus lockdown

McDonald explains to Commonwealth Times: "We added questions about experiences with pets during the pandemic because we wanted to expand our focus to understand how pets might support gender and sexual minority youth who were forced to live at home in a family environment that might not affirm their identity."

Does human-animal interaction impact a person’s experience and well-being?

two women standing in front of the golden gate bridge with their dog

From animal-assisted therapies to having dogs visit schools to bring down stress and anxiety levels, there have been many studies that look at the benefits of pet ownership.

Photo by Joshua Resnick on Shutterstock

Absolutely. Over the years, many studies have proven the benefits of human-animal interactions. From animal-assisted therapy practices to having therapy dogs in schools to reduce anxiety - there are many mental health benefits to animal-human interactions.

A similar study has been done on the impact of pets in the lives of older LGBT individuals.

A different 2018 study explored the role of pets in the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender adults over the age of 50.

This particular study addressed the following questions:

  1. How does living with a pet impact perceived social support and social network size?
  2. How do LGBT older adults describe the meaning of pets in their lives?

In this study, over 59 percent of participants reported that they have pets and described them in affectionate terms, often referring to them as family. Many individuals classified their pets as "supportive" either by offering companionship or keeping them active and socializing. Many participants explained that their pets help them cope with some form of physical or mental health condition.

How is this study different?

The goal of this particular study is to focus on the younger LGBTQ population and to examine how human-animal interactions might impact a person's experience and well-being when faced with victimization over their sexual orientation or identity. Not only that, but this study takes a look at both the positive and negative impacts of having a pet as an LGBTQ individual.

The vast majority of current research focuses on people who are not discriminated against or marginalized by society. According to the researchers, pets may lead marginalized people to "a path of financial stress and housing instability," which are issues the LGBTQ community already struggles with.

"Pets can better people's lives," Richards explains to Commonwealth Times, "but it's also been interesting to see the ways in which pets can be stressors for people experiencing homelessness and financial insecurity."

Shelby McDonald, one of the lead associate professors on the study, has dedicated the last decade of her life to researching the role of animals in the lives of children and has recently turned that focus toward LGBTQ youth.

As of September 2, the researchers have conducted 164 initial interviews. O'Ryan, one of the student researchers, explains: "We've collected a pretty diverse bunch, but the participants we interviewed have been largely white, cisgender, bisexual women. I wish we had the chance to interview more people of color and more people from diverse gender identities."

For more information on the study or a change to join as a participant, email cfar@vcu.edu.

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It marks a breakthrough in using gene editing to treat diseases.

Credit: National Cancer Institute via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

—FYODOR URNOV

If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

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