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Applying Relational Models

Title: Applying Relational Models to the Human-Animal Relationship: Can They Predict Veterinary Student Empathy Toward Animal Patients?
Ethics Approval Number: 2011/230
Student: Karen Connell
Supervisor: Dr Helen Davis
Co-Investigator: Dr Teresa Collins

This study investigated whether veterinary students applied Fiske’s (1991) relational models to their relationship with animal patients, and whether model choice accounted for variance in empathy. It also tested whether effects of gender, sentience beliefs, pet ownership and animal welfare education on empathy were mediated by relational model choice. First, third and fifth year Australian veterinary students (n = 420) at two accredited universities reported pet ownership and animal welfare education status, beliefs in animal sentience, empathy toward animals, and the degree to which they endorsed different relational models in their patient interactions. Sentience beliefs increased over the duration of the course (p < .01). Females reported higher levels of empathy than males (p < .001). Students reported moderate agreement with more empathic models (communal sharing and equality matching) and strong disagreement with unempathic asocial interactions. The type of relational model applied by veterinary students to their animal patients accounted for 28% of variance in empathy. Structural equation modeling showed relational models partially mediated predictor effects on empathy: male gender via market pricing and asocial interactions, current pet ownership via market pricing, high beliefs in animal sentience via reduced asocial interactions, and animal welfare education via reduced communal sharing and equality matching. It is concluded that the majority of veterinary students apply relational models to human-animal relationships, that specific model choice strongly predicts empathy, and that known demographic factors influence empathy, in part, through differences in specific model choice.