Getting ‘creature comfort’ from an emotional support animal has become a popular – some might even say trendy – approach to mental health care.
Though there is no national registry database to quantify how many people have such animal, social media is teeming with a menagerie of emotional support dogs, cats, rats, roosters, turtles and fish.
Research has shown that being around and caring for animals can boost your mood, but airlines, businesses and US states – including Arizona, as of today – are starting to crack down on support animals, arguing that their owners have gone to far.
Dr Hal Herzog, a psychologist and pioneer in the field of research on the relationship between animals and humans explains why the heart of the emotional support animal movement is in the right place, but might need a tighter leash.
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Emotional support animals have actually been ‘a thing’ since 1990, when they were defined and included in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as animals that ‘provide comfort just by being with a person.’
But comfort, says Dr Herzog is not the same thing as a treatment for a mental illness.
‘In the broad sense that most pet owners feel they get emotional support from their pets, yes, [emotional support animals] are effective,’ he says.
‘However there is no research at all demonstrating the effectiveness of “emotional support animals” to alleviate the symptoms of people suffering from psychiatric problems,’ he adds.
Several years ago, a series of scientific studies found that people who owned pets had a greater sense of ‘social support’ and, in turn, better overall mental health.
The researchers observed pet owners in the lab, and ‘demonstrated the ability of pets to stave off negativity caused by social rejection.’
They concluded: ‘pets can serve as important sources of social support, providing many positive psychological and physical benefits for their owner.’
But advocates for emotional support animals have vehemently argued that their companion creatures are distinctly not pets.
‘Lots of studies have found that interacting with animals can provide short-term stress relief,’ says Dr Herzog, and trained animals have been shown to play an important role in therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder victims.
‘But there is no empirical evidence that having your dog or turtle sitting with you on a plane will overcome your fear of flying,’ he says.
What research does exist on the psychological benefits of animals – be they service, support, or just regular pets – has by and large been conducted on dogs.
A smattering of studies have looked beyond man’s best friend.
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Dr Herzog says that in some studies, Guinea pigs seem to be help children on the autism spectrum to interact socially more comfortably. Horse or equine therapy has also been shown to be beneficial for patients suffering from disorders such as anxiety, depression, cerebral palsy and autism.
but not all animals are created equally beneficial to humans’ mental well-being.
‘Despite their popularity as pets, there are hardly any studies in which cats have been used in animal assisted therapy,’ says Dr Herzog.
‘Indeed, some studies have found that cat owners are worse off psychologically than dog owners or people with no pets (And, by the way, my pet is a cat.),’ he adds.
That raises questions about the menagerie of animals that people have had their therapists declare emotionally supportive – including cats, and animals whose psychological effects have not been studied.
Beyond the issue of what kind of animals are beneficial to people, there is little research on and few ways to distinguish which people genuinely see mental health improvements around animals, and which might just want to game the system.
The closest we have, Dr Herzog says, is one study done in Israel, which ‘found that people with a healthy attachment to pets benefited more from interacting with animals than pet owners who were not particularly attached their pets or those who were neurotically attached to their pets,’ he explains.
But even this research may say as much about the general mental well-being of those involved as it does about their animals, as ‘healthy attachments’ are considered a sign of broader mental health.
‘Researchers have found that the different attachment styles humans have with other people also characterize differences in the relationships that people have with their pets,’ Dr Herzog says.
Furthermore, ‘nearly every pet owner says they get emotional support from their companion animal,’ he says, which makes it difficult who is making strides toward lower anxiety and healthier attachments.
Similarly, the lack of a definition for what qualifies as an emotional support animal leaves a door wide open for abuses of the ADA, Dr Herzog says.
‘In the United States, emotional support animals have legal status that allows them to live in “no pet” housing and get free air travel for owners with psychiatric problems, yet there is not a federally recognized certification system for these animals,’ he says.
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It’s essentially the same principle as parking your car in a handicap spot without a sticker or a disability. It isn’t directly harming anyone else – until too many people are cheating the system, and there are no spots left where a handicap accessible van will fit.
Only it is far easier to get permission to take your animal wherever you want, and, in many places, it is illegal for businesses to ask you to prove your animal’s status.
‘All you need is a letter from a doctor or mental health provider saying you need to travel or live with your pet,’ says Dr Herzog.
‘As a result, a cottage internet industry has developed that will sell you an “emotional support animal” dog vest or a bogus letter saying your pet gerbil helps you cope with your anxiety disorder,’ he adds.
To crack down on the phenomenon, Arizona signed a measure into law today, making it a punishable offense to ‘fraudulently misrepresent an animal as a service animal,’ with a penalty of a $250 fine.
Arizona now requires most animals to have service training in order to qualify for exemption to housing and business regulations.
‘The bottom line is this – the public and even many doctors believe there is a large body of research demonstrating the effectiveness of emotional support animals of the treatment of mental problems. But this is simply not the case!’ Dr Herzog says.