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Shelby E. McDonald portrait

Shelby E. McDonald, Ph.D.

Associate professor

Email: smcdonald3@vcu.edu

Phone: (804) 828-2845

Ph.D., University of Denver
M.S.W., University of Denver
B.S., Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Shelby E. McDonald is an associate professor in the VCU School of Social Work and a core faculty member at the Clark-Hill Institute for Positive Youth Development in the VCU Department of Psychology. Her research focuses on improving the socioemotional and behavioral functioning of young people who have experienced adversity and trauma by examining the role of human-animal interaction in risk and resilience in childhood and adolescence.

Dr. McDonald’s recent projects have examined the impact of relationships with companion animals (e.g., dogs, cats) on psychosocial well-being of maltreated children, the impact of animal maltreatment exposure on child and adult survivors of intimate partner violence, and the role of companion animals in LGBTQIA2S+ youth wellbeing. Dr. McDonald’s research findings have been translated into recommendations for domestic violence services, mental health professionals who work with interspecies families, and animal welfare organizations. 

McDonald directs the Children, Families, and Animals Research (CFAR) Group at VCU. She also holds a research affiliate position with the VCU School of Medicine Center for Human-Animal Interaction. Dr. McDonald is passionate about mentoring students in research and welcomes undergraduate and graduate student participation in her projects.

Dr. McDonald is accepting Ph.D. student applications for Fall 2021.

Learn more about Dr. McDonald and the CFAR group  

CFAR Group | Twitter | Google Scholar | ResearchGate

VCU Appointments

Associate professor, VCU School of Social Work


Affiliate faculty, VCU Department of Psychology

Core faculty, Clark-Hill Institute for Positive Youth Development, VCU Department of Psychology

Affiliate researcher, VCU School of Medicine Center for Human-Animal Interaction

Affiliate, VCU Institute for Women's Health

Notable awards, honors and appointments

  • Fellow, Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, Oxford University, 2020
  • Guest Editor (2020-2021): Special Issue on Human-Animal Interaction in Risk and Resilience in Childhood, Adolescence, and Emerging Adulthood, Behavioral Sciences
  • Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), “Building a Multidisciplinary Pipeline of Researchers in Child Abuse and Neglect: Summer Training Institute for Early Career and Transitioning Scholars (R25).” Role: Trainee; PIs: Jonson-Reid & Widom. 2019 
  • Expert panel member, Congressional Briefing on HR 2808 (Child Abuse and Neglect Detection and Report Act of 2019). Washington DC, 2019.
  • VCU Wilder Center for Public Policy, Translational Research Fellow, 2019-2020
  • Educator of the Year, Virginia Social Work Education Consortium, 2017
  • Consulting Editor, Social Work Research, 2017-2020
  • VCU Faculty Development Seminar in Mexico/Guatemala, 2017
  • Teaching fellowship, Academic Learning Transformation Lab at VCU, 2016

Teaching areas and interests

Measurement and psychometrics (SWKD 71691); academic writing (SWKD 791); human-animal interaction (SLWK 791); power, privilege, and oppression (SLWK 311); research and statistics (SLWK 380/381)

Research projects and funding

Recent and current funded projects

Principal Investigator: “Investigating the impact of human-animal interaction on mental health in gender and sexual minority youth,” NIH Health Disparities LRP award (NICHD)

Principal Investigator: “The impact of human-animal interaction on adjustment of children exposed to adverse family environments,” R21HD097769-02, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (Co-Investigators: Albert Farrell, Ph.D., & Sunny Shin, Ph.D. | Community Partner: Greater Richmond SCAN).

Principal Investigator: “Companion Animals in the Context of LGBTQ+ Youth Wellbeing,” VCU Presidential Research Quest Fund (Co-Investigators: M. Alex Wagaman, Ph.D., & Traci Wike, Ph.D. | Community Partners: Side by Side, Health Brigade, Virginia League Planned Parenthood, Nationz Foundation)

Principal Investigator: “Advancing measurement in human-animal interactions research: A pilot study to develop a new measure of children’s experiences with companion animals,” Faculty Internal Research Grant, School of Social Work

Co-Principal Investigator: “Training Latino residents in Mental Health First Aid,” VCU Community Engagement Grant (Co-PI: Rosalie Corona, Ph.D. | Community Partner: Sacred Heart Center)

Co-Investigator: “Women and children exposed to intimate partner violence and concomitant animal abuse,” 5R01-HD-66503-4, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (PIs: James Herbert Williams, Ph.D. & Frank R. Ascione, Ph.D. | Community Partner: Violence Free Colorado)


Recent publications

Applebaum, J. , Adams, B., Eliasson, M., Zsembik, B., & McDonald, S. E. (2020). The impact of pets on health care decision-making during the COVID-19 crisis. One Health.

Hawkins, R., McDonald, S. E., O’Connor, K., Matijczak, A., Williams, J.H., & Ascione, F.R. (2019). Exposure to intimate partner violence and internalizing symptoms: The moderating effects of positive relationships with pets and animal cruelty exposure. Child Abuse & Neglect. Advance Online Publication.

McDonald, S. E., Collins, E., Maternick, A.M., Nicotera, N., Graham-Bermann, S., Ascione, F. R., & Williams, J. H. (2019). Intimate partner violence survivors’ reports of their children’s exposure to companion animal maltreatment: A qualitative study. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 34(14), 2627-2652.

Hitti, S. A., Sullivan, T., McDonald, S.E., & Farrell, A. (2019). Relations between beliefs supporting aggression and externalizing outcomes: The mediating roles of anger dysregulation and callous-unemotional traits. Aggressive Behavior, 45(1), 93-102.

McDonald, S. E., Im, H., Green, K. E., Luce, C. O., & Burnette, J.D. (2019). Comparing factor models of PTSD with Somali refugee youth in Kenya: An item response theory analysis of the PCL-C. Traumatology, 25(2), 104-114. 

McDonald, S. E., Cody, A. M., Booth L. J., Peers, J.R., Luce, C. O., Ascione, F.R., & Williams, J. H. (2018). Animal cruelty among children in violent households: Children's explanations of their behavior. Journal of Family Violence, 33(7), 469-480. 

Shin, S., McDonald, S. E., Conley, D. (2018). Profiles of adverse childhood experiences and impulsivity. Child Abuse & Neglect, 85, 118-126. 

McDonald, S. E., Ma, L., Green, K. E., Hitti, S. A., Cody, A., Donovan, C., Ascione, F. R., & Williams, J. H. (2018). Evaluation of the parent-report version of the Inventory of Callous- Unemotional Traits in a sample of children recruited from intimate partner violence services: A multidimensional Rasch analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 74(3), 418-441. 

McDonald, S. E., Dmitrieva, J., Shin, S., Hitti, S. A., Graham-Bermann, S., Ascione, F.R., & Williams, J.H. (2017). The role of callous/unemotional traits in mediating the association between animal abuse exposure and behavior problems among children exposed to intimate partner violence. Child Abuse & Neglect, 72, 421-432.  

McDonald, S. E., Shin, S., Corona, R., Maternick, A., Graham-Bermann, S., Ascione, F., & Williams, J. H. (2016). Children exposed to intimate partner violence: Identifying differential effects of family environment on children’s trauma and psychopathology symptoms through regression mixture models. Child Abuse & Neglect, 58, 1-11.  

McDonald, S. E., Collins, E., Nicotera, N., Hageman, T., Ascione, F., Williams, J. H., & Graham-Bermann, S. (2015). Children’s experiences of companion animal maltreatment in households characterized by intimate partner violence. Child Abuse & Neglect, 50, 116-127.  


Recent activities

  • VCU IRB Committee, 2020-current
  • Research Advisory Committee, VCU School of Social Work, 2018-current.
  • Co-Chair, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, & Access Committee, American  Psychological Association, Human-Animal Bond Division (Section 13 of Division 17), 2019
  • VAdata Advisory Committee, Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, 2015-2020.
  • Doctoral Program Committee, VCU School of Social Work, 2017-current.