‘More than just a man’s best friend’ – better regulation of emotional support animals needed

27 JUNE 2023

‘More than just a man’s best friend’ – better regulation of emotional support animals needed

Animals provide a wealth of benefits to their human counterparts, from simply bringing a smile to their face, through to guiding the sight-impaired through daily life.

But the emotional support animal sector is falling short of adequate regulations, and this must change if both humans and animals are to benefit one another ethically and effectively.

By Dr Rachel Hogg, lecturer in the Charles Sturt University School of Psychology.

What is an emotional support animal

Seeing a guide dog lead its owner down a busy street is a relatively familiar occurrence. Service animals have been working for decades in a sector underpinned by relatively clear rules and practices where broadly speaking, the public understands the animal’s role.

Now, a new category of animals has entered the public sphere -emotional support animals.  

In both types of human-animal interaction (service, and emotional support), animals provide support to a specific person.

Where the two differ is largely in the legitimacy of their registration and the specificity of their training – as well as the latter unfortunately being afforded much less societal respect.

An emotional support animal provides companionship that is deemed by a medical provider or licensed mental health professional to minimise symptoms of a given psychiatric disorder.

Because emotional support animals are licensed, the owner may be able to bring the support animal into public environments where pets may otherwise not be allowed. Despite what the rules may allow, not all members of the public are willing to accept this.

This discrepancy in how we view emotional support animals versus how we view service animals reflects an important difference between how mental and physical health concerns are understood, and more importantly, valued, in society.

Although service animals are sometimes trained to provide support to those with psychiatric diagnoses, they typically provide support to those with visible physical disabilities.

The delegitimising of emotional support animals reflects something significant in the way that we often dismiss and trivialise mental health concerns.

The types of support offered

Regardless of their title, animals across the board can provide a range of supports, positively impacting people’s lives both physically and mentally.

All kinds of animal species can work as emotional support animals, from hamsters, horses, and hedgehogs to cats, birds, and fish. Dogs are the most commonly used, with anecdotal evidence suggesting the Golden Retriever is the most popular dog breed.

Realistically, though, any animal that provides companionship, is affectionate and, within certain limits, is trainable, can be used in this context. However, generally speaking, and particularly for those experiencing symptoms of PTSD, being able to take the animal out to public spaces such as shopping centres, airports, cafes, and on public transport, can be especially useful. Dogs and cats are both common emotional support animals, in part because they are two of the most common pet animals and unlike horses, who are widely used in animal-assisted therapy, are easily transportable.

On a physical level, animals, most commonly dogs, can be trained to open and close doors, retrieve medication, assist with balance and stability, and due to their extraordinary sensory abilities, can also be trained to assist those with hearing and visual deficits to navigate the world.

On a psychological level, animals are used formally and informally to reduce distress and create a sense of connection and safety, which, in some contexts, may supersede what a therapist can ethically offer a client.

Human physical contact with an animal can result in lowered cortisol levels, leading to lowered stress levels. In addition, dogs and humans alike have been found to release oxytocin when making eye contact and when the animal is being stroked.

Because most of us trust animals more than we do each other, those who might never normally access formal psychological support may engage with animals therapeutically, whether in a pet context, an emotional support context, or in a formal therapeutic context.

Social capital – a sense of community connectedness – can also be fostered through contact with animals.

But animal welfare must be a priority above all else in these scenarios. We should never ask what type of support animals can offer without considering how providing support to humans can impact animals.

The impact on animals

Research suggests that certain animals, dogs and horses in particular, are capable of sensing and responding to human emotion.

That emotional contagion between human and animal may result in adverse impacts for the animal, especially if they are regularly in contact with individuals who are distressed, dysregulated, or even aggressive or volatile.

If helping humans comes at the detriment of the animal, there needs to be an alternative.

Fraud is rife within the emotional support animal sector. One statistic suggested a quarter of Americans had their emotional support animal registered via an online website, rather than by a licensed professional, while sellers like Amazon offer fake emotional support vests, collars, and other paraphernalia to those looking to circumnavigate the registration process.

These loopholes have led to reports of pigs, ducks, and dogs causing havoc on planes and in some instances, creating distress, discomfort, and inconvenience for other individuals, which in turn furthers animosity towards the owner of the animal and sometimes even the animal itself.

Industry regulation is required to ‘stem the bleeding’ at the source, and as mental health services themselves continue to be stretched beyond their limits. There’s no time to lose.

Ongoing mental health benefits for sufferers

Many mental health services are hard to access and expensive, so while an emotional support animal may seem an unorthodox option for those unfamiliar with navigating complex mental health systems, it may be not only a suitable option, but the only option for many of those needing mental health support.

Unlike therapists who provide therapy for time-limited periods, and often not during periods of immediate distress, emotional support animals can provide support in these critical moments and across time, meaning we should take the support they offer, and the animals themselves, seriously.


Media Note:

To arrange interviews with Dr Rachel Hogg, contact Jessica McLaughlin at Charles Sturt Media on mobile 0430 510 538 or via news@csu.edu.au

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