Thursday 4 May 2023

Emotional support animals - a trusted friend providing companionship and comfort

All animal lovers know how well a beloved pet can ‘tune in’ to our moods, sensing when we are unhappy, upset or stressed and offering reassuring snuggles and warmth. However, more recently, animals have been more formally recognised as being able to provide a key therapeutic role in helping people with a mental health or psychiatric disability. They are known as ‘Emotional Support Animals’ (ESAs).

The comfort provided by an emotional support dog

An emotional support animal is first and foremost a companion animal, not a service animal. However, in some countries, for example the USA, they have a legally recognised status, whilst in the UK they currently do not. This means, for example, that some US airlines are more lenient about having a support animal onboard a flight, whilst in the UK most don’t allow it. The majority of ESAs are dogs, but other animals can fulfil the role, too, including cats and other small animals.

The role of an ESA is distinctly different to that of a ‘service animal,’ and providing emotional support and companionship to someone with mental health or emotional needs is their key role. Service dogs generally require extensive training to do specific tasks for someone with physical or mental needs. The difference is that, as an ESA, just the animal’s presence helps the person to cope. Whilst the value of the comfort that an emotional support animal provides cannot be denied, it’s important to remember that the welfare of the creature should not be overlooked. Most people have a great bond with their animal(s) and treat them with respect, but there have been examples quoted in the media that throw into question whether the animal in the role of ESA was in a stressful situation. A peacock was denied a seat on a US flight although it was said to be an ESA, and in the UK an ‘emotional support’ cat was banned from a supermarket when accompanying its autistic owner. Not all creatures are happy in the company of strangers, and in busy and unfamiliar situations.

Cats can ‘tune in’ to emotions and provide comfort

A valuable role in emotional support

Several studies have shown that animals help to bring health benefits to humans. Through companionship, exercise, comfort and caring for another being, all have proved to lower blood pressure and increase the hormone levels associated with bonding. Research by the University of Toledo paired eleven people with mental illness with a rescue dog or cat, and results showed an improvement in their mental wellbeing. There is certainly more work to be done in this interesting area, but it does appear to confirm what animal lovers have always known: that the love and companionship of a companion animal is indeed therapeutic and life-enhancing, as long as the animal’s needs are respected, too.

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