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Unanticipated Animals: What Happens When Pets Appear in Research Interviews?

A study finds pets are often written out of research reports, even when they shouldn’t be.

By Zazie Todd


(Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

We all know the saying “never work with children or animals.” Normally it applies to actors. But what happens when a researcher goes to interview someone and a pet is there too? A paper by Sara Ryan and Sue Ziebland from the University of Oxford says that health scientists are not paying enough attention to the importance of pets in people’s lives.

Their analysis shows that pets are often ignored or are seen as an interruption in interviews. In one case, someone talks about how their diagnosis with a serious health condition was difficult, especially because they did not feel the doctor listened to them as a patient. The researcher’s response: “Can I shut that cat up?” (Fortunately the video of the interview showed this was a friendly interaction.)

Although this is the most striking example given in the paper, Ryan and Ziebland say that, in general, the researchers did not ask about the role of companion animals. Even when people talked about their pets, it was often not followed up within the interview.

“The topic of pets was almost exclusively raised in the interview by the participants rather than the researchers,” Ryan and Ziebland write. “Variously, pets were physically removed from the interview setting (by the participant, another member of the household or even the researcher themselves), written out of the verbatim transcript with an interruption label, and positioned as irrelevant or not interesting through a lack of engagement by researchers, who largely failed to prompt participants about the role pets played in their lives. The pets were rarely mentioned in the analysis and initial writing up of findings.”

The real issue is that, across the whole set of interviews, pets were often ignored even when they were relevant to the topic of the study.

This is despite the fact that one advantage of qualitative interview research is the opportunity to follow up on things the participant mentions. This suggests the researchers had not considered the role of pets when designing their interviews, and did not realize during the interview that it was something worth further questioning, although some exceptions are included.

In some cases, pets played a central role in people’s accounts. One woman described noticing her mother’s dementia first when she realized the dog was no longer being taken care of, for example. In another case, the dog’s expectations of someone’s presence are discussed in relation to the loss of a parent. Pets are mentioned in ways that show they are part of the family, as when the pet helps in coping with loneliness after a loss.

When one person’s partner was in the hospital for an operation, they said: “But I came home and took the dog for a walk and we had a chat! And we talked this thing through.”

People are not anthropomorphizing the animals, according to Ryan and Ziebland. “The narratives show more of a levelling between the status of the pet and person that is often not recognized or acknowledged in popular discourses around animal ownership,” they write.

The paper is based on what’s called a secondary analysis of an existing data set of interviews. They looked at 231 interviews with people with autism, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, or heart failure, and carers of people with dementia or multiple sclerosis. The interviews were all conducted as part of research into aspects of those conditions — and notably the focus was not on pets.

The transcripts were studied for places where pets appeared. Anywhere that an interruption was listed they went to the audio recordings to see what happened. In some cases the interruption was a pet, in which case they transcribed this in full. Then they analyzed all the places where pets were mentioned or made a noise.

Some of the interruptions are distractions from the research process, as when a participant stopped to go and get some biscuits for the dog, or the researcher tries to interact with a dog which is then frightened. At other times, references were made to important roles the pet plays as companion, confidant, and support.

We shouldn’t get too hung up on the one researcher who was too distracted by a cat to listen to the participant in that moment. The real issue is that, across the whole set of interviews, pets were often ignored even when they were relevant to the topic of the study. It is a reminder that health researchers should be aware that pets might come up in ways relevant to the research and that weren’t anticipated.

Despite the omission of pets from the original published papers, in other ways this study shows qualitative research at its best. Not only were the written transcripts available, but they could be checked against the audio from the interviews, and the original researchers made themselves available to answer questions, such as when more context was needed. In other words, the audit trail worked exactly as it is supposed to, and the secondary analysis is excellent.

The accounts highlighted in this paper show people talking about their pets as family members, in a manner that recognizes that others may not see animals in the same way. Although the paper focuses on health research, this is a topic with wider relevance to the role of animals in society.