Companion animals offer many health benefits to humans; they are known to lower blood pressure, reduce heart rate, encourage safe physical activity, and provide stress relief. Some, commonly referred to as therapy animals, provide emotional comfort and support to those who need it. Highly trained service dogs and other animals aid the blind, immobilized, and others with physical disabilities.
Now, therapy and service animals are evolving to more actively help people cope with mental and psychological disorders, as Shirley S. Wang reports for The Wall Street Journal. People afflicted by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), autism, depression, anxiety disorders, and other conditions are finding much-needed support in the form of four-legged friends.
Emotional Support Animals
Emotional support animals (ESAs) make up a relatively new category of therapy pet, and they are gradually gaining recognition and acceptance. These dogs, cats, horses, chinchillas, and other furry companions aren’t specially trained or certified. Pets are established as ESAs by a physician, psychologist, psychiatrist, or other healthcare professional’s official letter designating them as such. The letter affirms that the animal eases symptoms associated with its owner’s particular condition.
People struggling with depression, fear or anxiety disorders, and similar conditions present a variety of physical and emotional symptoms that respond well to ESAs. Formal clinical trials on the efficacy of this sort of therapy are in short supply because they’re difficult to design and execute. However, anecdotal evidence supporting the use of ESAs is plentiful.
Psychiatric Service Animals
Some pets are highly trained for extended periods at considerable expense to assist people with certain mental and psychological conditions, such as PTSD, schizophrenia, and autism. One rapidly expanding application includes psychiatric service dogs for returning U.S. military veterans with PTSD, reports Elizabeth Landau for CNN.
These specially-trained animals can help autistic individuals develop stronger social skills, and some are able to sense when their owner experiences an acute behavioral or psychiatric episode, such as those that occur with panic attacks, flashbacks, or hallucinations. Amazingly, the simple act of nudging the symptomatic person can be enough to ground him and ease him through the manifestation of symptoms.
Questions of Acceptance
As with any newly developing field, emotional support and psychiatric service animals are raising difficult questions about their use. Many mental health professionals and patients are eagerly sharing news of the benefits these animals offer. On the other hand, some experts point out that pairing pets with people suffering from depression, anxiety, and other emotional problems puts the animal at risk for neglect and for developing similar problems.
To what extent these new therapy animals should be exempted from public space prohibitions, as on public transportation and in restaurants, is another issue. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) ensures the right of physically disabled individuals to keep guide dogs and other service animals with them. The ADA also guarantees that those who are mentally and psychologically disabled can keep dogs with them, provided the animal provides tangible health assistance. However, the ADA specifically excludes animals who provide only comfort or emotional support.
Clearly, there are gray areas, particularly concerning the use of ESAs. The needs of people who have these animals must be balanced with the needs of those with severe animal allergies, fear of dogs, and other concerns. This and other issues must be dealt with by courts and lawmakers as they arise. And the topic of ESAs is certain to come up with increasing frequency as we gain a greater understanding of the many benefits therapy and service animals provide.