Emotional Support Animals– The pros and cons by Martha Anderson

Most of us know what it is like to go through a bad patch in life when you feel really down-hearted and low in spirits. I experienced this quite recently as a result of an upset which caused me great sorrow and anxiety. During this time my three cats were quite a consoling presence and I even felt they sensed when I was crying and duly gathered around. Through my tears I got comfort from just stroking their soft fur.
I was reminded of the whole idea of Emotional Support Dogs, about whom I had heard but knew very little. So I decided to check it out. We are all of course familiar with guide dogs and the great work they do, not only from our own observance but also through Roy Keane and his efforts on their behalf.
Perhaps the main difference between an emotional support dog and other service dogs is that it is not obvious to the onlooker what the former are actually doing. In other words they are not actually seen to be performing any specific task. This is because they are providing companionship and unconditional love to a person so their presence is more in the nature of a therapeutic benefit. They do not have any special training and are not required to do so by law. They can assist with conditions such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, mood disorder, panic attacks, fears and phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts or tendencies. A doctor or therapist can determine that a person needs to have a comforting companion to help them cope when something triggers their particular condition.
Another interesting aspect is that emotional support can be provided by animals other than dogs whereas Service Animals are either dogs or mini horses. Unlike service dogs, emotional support animals do not have access to all public areas. Emotional support dogs and cats are allowed access to “no pets policy” housing and in the cabins of airplanes, but a letter is required from a doctor or mental health professional endorsing your need for an animal as a result of your disability. It is advised also to provide your dog with a vest, tag, harness, leash or patch which informs the public of their distinctive identity and could save embarrassing encounters and unnecessary challenges.
This brings us neatly into another dimension of this topic and a potentially disturbing one. Sadly there will always be people who abuse these services and incur the wrath and disapproval of others in the process. There are bound to be people who are cynical about the value of all this as well as others who have no empathy for animals or people. The person who mentioned this to me first raised her eyes to Heaven at such a concept. Their attitude is helped by those people who do not have a mental disability and who try to bring animals onto a plane, or into shops and other places of business, by passing them off as emotional support animals. Such individuals not only bring the service into disrepute, they also can incur problems for those who need and use true service animals. Unfortunately anyone can order a “service animal” vest online, even when they do not in fact have a legitimate service animal.
In all of this it is important to remember the welfare of the animals themselves. Those who are imposters are putting themselves first and can give little thought to what the consequences for the animal might be. There was an example of a bear cub who was presented on campus as an emotional support animal and bit someone. It was pointed out that none of this was the bear’s fault An emotional support animal may cause problems that a trained assistance dog may not. For example, due to the lack of training, an emotional support animal may bark at and smell other people, whereas service dogs are trained not to do so.
It has been noted that an awful lot of research has to be done into this whole area to determine what exactly are the benefits of an emotional support animal in concrete terms. Some have argued that there is a danger of the animal becoming something of a crutch that the owner depends upon to get them through. What happens if their animal dies? An analogy has been made between a small child who will not go anywhere without a blanket or a special toy. Are there other more long term solutions located in their own personal resources which might be ultimately more beneficial if properly developed? On the other hand how do you determine such ‘personal’ things. Anyone whose life has been greatly enhanced by their animal will not really care about the science behind it all.