Why Aren’t All Pets Called Emotional Support Animals?

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It’s pretty common to go somewhere with our pets and find that we have to leave them outside. Outside stores, closed public spaces… This is pretty common in most countries, but on some occasions we’ll see someone stroll with a pet through a door with a “NO PETS ALLOWED” sign. Why is that situation allowed? Well, probably that pet is a service animal.

These are animals specially trained to assist people in many different ways. Some people with disabilities and health conditions will have animals that assist them in daily tasks. Some people need these pets to support them and allow for greater independence in a society that is not fully prepared to meet their needs. There are different types of Service or Assistance animals:

  • Guide Dogs: help people with visual impairment
  • Hearing Dogs: help people with hearing impairment
  • Medical Alert Dogs: Specially trained to detect health conditions (e.g. epilepsy or diabetes)
  • Mobility Assistance Dogs: trained to help people with various types of physical impairment (by fetching objects, opening doors, etc.)

For each purpose, there are some preferred breeds, but even mixed breeds can be service dogs, depending on the job. This happens because these animals need to have both physical and emotional aptitude for jobs that may sometimes require size and resistance or an adequate temperament. For example, a small dog would not be able to help a person out of a wheelchair as they could both get hurt.

Labrador Retriever is the most common breed. A stable temperament, high motivation to learn and adequate attention span are the main traits that are selected in these cases.

There is, however, a much wider and special category for Assistance dogs in which any animal can be included. Sometimes, our own pets can be classified as such.

We are talking about Emotional Support Animals (ESA). Pets that have therapeutical benefits in psychological and psychiatric disorders. They give support to people in these situations and promote their well-being.

The main benefit of these pets is their mere presence. They don’t need specific training: basic obedience training is enough for them to be able to hang out with other people and animals in an healthy way. These animals bring comfort and support to the ones around them and that’s how they contribute to the healing process.

Not only different dog breeds, but different animal species can be ESA, including cats, horses or even turtles or goldfish. Dogs are the most common, but the patient’s personal preferences can determine the species.

Some countries regard emotional support animals as service animals, whilst other countries don’t consider them any different from regular pets. Even in countries with limited rights for these animals, some private companies might have special policies regarding registered emotional support animals, like airlines that will allow them to travel in the cabin with their owners.

Even though many people wish their pet to be considered an ESA, not everyone really needs it. You must have a therapist confirm your problem and that you have a need for an ESA in order to register your pet as one.

The question remains: How can an “ordinary” household pet help someone in psychological distress?

  1. Petting an animal calms us down, reducing our heart rate and lowering our cortisol levels (stress hormone). Looking at an aquarium with fish can have the same soothing effect. Anxiety or panic symptoms can thus be addressed through the presence of pets.
  2. Pets are great listeners. They can hear your complaints without judging and hold back on the advice: they remain neutral AND caring.
  3. Outdoor or playful activities with our pets can also help us clear our minds, be more optimistic and promote our sociability. You can find people that you can relate to during dog walks.
  4. Sometimes, our pets will know us so well that they can sense an emotional crisis. Sensing that you are in trouble, some pets are known to seek other people’s attention to come and help you out.

Even if we don’t realize it, the simple presence of an animal, our own pet, can help us relieve some of the sadness or desperate feelings that sometimes creep over us. And it’s guaranteed they’ll always greet you with happiness, whenever you show up. That’s great support right there!

Author: Carolina Vargas, DVM

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