Dr. Jennifer Applebaum: Bridging Human and Animal Health with Sociology

by: Jenny Rogers

Guided by her unwavering empathy, Dr. Jennifer Applebaum‘s journey in animal welfare and sociology is marked by a profound commitment to both human and animal well-being.

As she approaches her second year as an assistant professor with the University of Florida Department of Environmental and Global Health, Applebaum reflects on the foundations that drew her toward her work at the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions.

While Applebaum has always had a soft spot for her four-legged friends, her beginnings in rescue volunteering began over a decade ago while she was living in Chicago. 

Applebaum beams at one of the puppies at an adoption event while volunteering with a Chicago dog rescue called New Leash on Life in 2013.

After relocating to Gainesville in 2013, she dove into animal sheltering by taking on an adoption and foster coordinator role at the local Humane Society. Applebaum’s invaluable experiences and involvement piqued her interest in joining the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at UF, where she worked as a student services coordinator.

Applebaum helps with a new dog intake at the Alachua County Humane Society in 2014.

In 2015, Applebaum returned to school to earn her master’s degree in veterinary medical sciences from UF, which she coupled with a position as a veterinary care manager at UF Vet Med’s community outreach program.

“That [position] combined with my experience working at the shelter really got me interested in how social inequalities impact the problems that we’re seeing with animal sheltering,” she said.

After earning her master’s degree in 2017, Applebaum found herself eager to dive into the sociological explanations behind her field and decided to pursue her Ph.D. in sociology at UF.

“I felt like I had this sheltering side and a good understanding of what working in that community was like, and I wanted more theoretical research training in sociology to get the human and social structural inequalities side of it, too,” she said.

Applebaum’s Ph.D. education exposed her to everything under the broader umbrella of social science in health, including mental health, the medical system and patient-provider interactions. 

It gave her insight into how health and illness are socially patterned, revealing the impact of inequalities relating to gender, race and social environments on health disparities. In other words, Applebaum received training in how social factors and inequalities can significantly influence people’s health outcomes, which she was able to couple with her knowledge on biases in animal sheltering.

With her combined knowledge from her master’s degree and Ph.D., Applebaum’s comprehensive understanding of health naturally led her to the concept of One Health, or the intersection of human, animal and environmental health, and her role at the EGH department.

While One Health is often considered from a hard science perspective, Applebaum brings unique sociological expertise to the table. 

“I answer questions like which social groups are more vulnerable [to infectious disease], whether it’s because of a certain disease’s zoonotic origin, poor housing conditions or both.

“All of these things are linked within the One Health framework, and the human-animal bond is a recognized element that may make people and animals more or less susceptible to disease for various reasons,” she said.

.For Applebaum, any given work day at EGH can look different as she spends her days writing manuscripts and grants, preparing presentations, performing qualitative and quantitative research and reading. 

Applebaum said she is excited about her work in examining access to pet-friendly housing and how its barriers impact the human-animal bond. 

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, 72% of renters said pet-friendly housing is hard to come by, 59% said it has become too expensive and 24% said they had to move because of their pets. 

Because of factors like housing instability and a lack of available pet-friendly housing, many animals have to be relinquished to a shelter. And as housing insecurity worsens in the U.S., relinquishment due to people being unhoused has increased, she added.

“The issue is not so much on the policies focused on convincing landlords to let pets into people’s homes, but it comes from broader economic inequalities in the U.S. and the issue with affordable housing,” she said. 

From a sociological perspective, Applebaum said economic inequalities feed housing inequality, as well as the issues related to whether people can support their pets. In turn, that affects whether the pets end up in the shelter or not.

“Right now, shelters in the southeast especially are struggling, and they’re having to euthanize at rates they haven’t reached in recent history,” she said. “It all comes down to these unfair social structures that force people to make horrific choices like, ‘Am I going to be unhoused, or am I going to keep my pet, who is my family?’” 

The growing concern for pet-friendly housing hits home for Applebaum, as she has witnessed the tragedy of relinquished pets at local shelters. 

Ten years ago, while visiting a local shelter with the UF Veterinary Community Outreach Program, Applebaum met her beloved foster fail DeeDee. Suffering from a giant facial abscess, DeeDee was listed as one of the animals needing immediate attention.

As the pitbull gently laid in her lap post-treatment, Applebaum knew she would bring her home.

“So, I convinced my husband we should foster DeeDee, but he knew what I was really doing,” she laughed. “All my animals are foster fails.”

Now, DeeDee lives happily alongside other members of the Applebaum fur family, including a chihuahua-foxhound-pitbull named Little Dog and two cats named Dawn Rickles and Bean.

DeeDee (left) and Little Dog (right) put on their cutest faces for a photo in July 2020.

Another project Applebaum works on involves the impact of pet ownership on the wellbeing of people with HIV.

“HIV can be a really stigmatizing and isolating diagnosis, right?” she said. “So, oftentimes people with HIV receive a lot of emotional support from their pets.”

However, due to structural inequalities and barriers, owning a pet can actually become an issue to healthcare access. One common occurrence can be seen with unhoused pet owners with HIV who are forced to leave their pets in their cars during doctors appointments.

“You can’t bring your dog into the clinic, but you can’t leave your dog in a parked car in the heat,” she said, highlighting the difficult choices pet owners with HIV often face.

Recognizing these challenges, Applebaum hopes her work will contribute toward finding ways to change clinic policies, easing the burden of pet ownership on people with HIV who need treatment.

For Applebaum, nothing is more fulfilling than seeing her work come to fruition. Her 2021 paper titled “Pet-friendly for whom? An analysis of pet fees in Texas rental housing” published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science has been cited in a number of congressional bills in different states to introduce new policies related to pet-friendly housing.

“The reason why I wanted to do research was to make a real-life impact,” she said. “To see it actually happening is so, so cool.”

This fall, Applebaum will join EGH colleague and assistant professor Dr. José Colón-Burgos to teach a course on the social determinants of health at PHHP, and she plans to teach her own course in the spring called “Human-animal Interaction and Health.”

Applebaum presents her work at the 2024 PHHP Days.

As she looks forward in her career, Applebaum aspires to leave her mark on policy change and inspire her students to champion the intersection of human and animal health.

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