Human-Animal Interaction Advocate

Megan Mueller, Ph.D., researches and practices how humans and animals benefit from their interactions and companionship
a smiling individual with long light brown hair wearing eye glasses and a blue sportcoat sits in front a computer

Megan Mueller, Ph.D., A08, AG10, AG13 (she/her), a developmental scientist, co-director of Tufts Initiative for Human-Animal Interaction (TIHAI), and associate professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, learned about the power of human-animal relationships while pursuing a Ph.D. in child study and human development. She was mentored by Richard Lerner, Ph.D., director of the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development at Tufts University.

Since then, she has focused her professional pursuits to determine what people think about animals, how they interact with animals, and the mutual benefits of those interactions. Mueller conducts research about how animal-assisted education, therapy, and community programs promote health among humans and animals.

She leads Tufts’ Pets and Well-Being Lab, a group focusing on this area of research, which leads to practical applications to improve the lives of diverse children, families, and their companion animals. Located at Cummings School’s Center for Animals and Public Policy (CAPP) and affiliated with TIHAI, Mueller’s research has been funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the Society for Companion Animal Studies, and the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation. 

Upcoming research supported by the NIH
The need for assistance in youth mental health has risen sharply in recent years. This crisis prompted the U.S. Surgeon General to issue an advisory in December 2021 about protecting youth mental health, followed by 2023 advisories on the healing effects of social connection and community, and finally, on social media and youth mental health.

Studies have shown that a connection to pets can help ease social anxiety, according to Mueller, who has collaborated with colleagues to publish several papers in this area of research in recent years. She is excited to embark on her next research project, supported by a significant five-year grant (RO1) from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to analyze how pet dogs can support teenagers with social anxiety. 

Seventy percent of U.S. households have a pet—52% have dogs and 24% have cats—according to a 2021–2022 national pet owners survey by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association.

“Social anxiety is the most prevalent anxiety disorder and typically begins during the teenage years,” Mueller explains.We’re looking at how a pet dog can help support teenagers to cope with their anxiety in more productive ways.” The study aims to help teens develop positive lifelong habits, instead of the more negative ways of coping, such as substance abuse or social media.

Centering on teenagers with pet dogs, the participants will be observed at annual intervals for four years as they develop their relationship with their dog. Data will be collected through surveys and interviews with teens and their parents and measurements of effects of dog interaction through a wristband that gathers physiological data. “This information will help us understand more of how the dogs may be helping them. Then we can create better programs or interventions,” Mueller says. 

“With most households having a pet, this feels like an achievable way of leveraging a resource that already exists in the family. We hope that teenagers who are developing their relationship with their pet can provide a way of helping the teen cope with anxiety.”

Serving as teacher and mentor
A core member of Cummings School’s M.S. in Animals and Public Policy (MAPP) program, Mueller also introduces MAPP students to this up-and-coming field through a pair of foundational courses, which open career path options in service animal training or HAI research and teaching.

Through Mueller’s guidance and mentorship, two current graduate students—Ph.D. candidate Erin King, VG16 (she/her), and MAPP student Jada Ford (she/her)—have been profoundly influenced to pursue this field of study.

After earning her MAPP degree, King started working for Mueller as a research coordinator on campus and as a coordinator of a combined program between Cummings School and Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University, which sponsors 6–8 students in an annual 10-week summer fellowship program. 

“I’ve been working with her now for almost seven years,” says King. “She authentically connects with students. I started the Ph.D. program with her in 2020 and she has inspired me to follow the path of human-animal interaction, which I hope to continue in after completing my degree. If it wasn’t for her, I would not be getting my Ph.D., so I am eternally grateful.”

Jada Ford came to Cummings School from South Carolina, and credits Mueller with helping her adjust.

There’s something really unique and special about the way that Dr. Mueller mentors students, Ford explains. She understands us as young people first and students after. Professionally, she supplies us with the resources that we need to be successful.

This summer, when Ford was working on her MAPP research project, titled “Exploring the Intersectionality Between Black Americans and Animals,” Mueller recommended Ford for a Tisch Fellowship, which Ford secured.

“This support funded my research for the summer, which helped me tremendously,” Ford beams. “Through the MAPP program I found my passion, and now I’m applying to an Ed.D. program.”

Tufts Paws for People
In addition to her research and teaching, Mueller also participates in Tufts Paws for People, which trains and deploys therapy animals and their handlers to visit local elder care facilities, hospitals, and schools, among other locations.

“Our Paws for People group has seen a huge uptick in requests to provide stress relief,” says Mueller. “They are very popular at high schools and especially colleges, because students are missing their pets at home.”

Part of CAPP and TIHAI, nearly 50 animal/handler teams comprise this service program, and all volunteer their time.

“Research has shown that even that short duration visit with pets can reduce your immediate stress levels,” says Mueller. “It’s a great program, and the volunteers get a lot out of it, too. It’s highly rewarding for all.”

Mueller has been instrumental in garnering support for Paws for People from the University community, according to Deb Gibbs (she/her), program coordinator of Paws for People and radiology rotation supervisor at Henry and Lois Foster Hospital for Small Animals. 

“Megan made many visits with her wonderful dog, Jett, who recently retired from the program,” says Gibbs. “She also serves on the Human-Animal Bond Advisory Board through our national organization, Pet Partners®, where she helps to direct the Pet Partners best practices for those involved with their group. Pet Partners® provides liability coverage for our members as they visit, and they are considered the gold standard in therapy animal groups nationally.”

Gibbs hopes that recent funding from a two-year Felicia Rose Grant, combined with funding from other sources, will support two part-time staffing positions and enable the program’s growth and sustainability. “Funding is always a challenge for a group such as ours, and Megan helps direct us to opportunities that may be a good fit,” Gibbs explains. “She is an excellent person to have on board.”

Through all her work, Mueller aims to improve the lives of humans and animals through mutually beneficial interactions. Ideally, she would like the findings of her current research to produce practical applications, such as helping to develop policies.

She explains, “That could entail making this information more accessible for dog owners or healthcare providers…You’d be surprised at how many pediatricians don’t ask about whether there’s a pet in the home. It should be a standard question for mental health practitioners.”