Taking a pet everywhere for emotional support, from airplanes to daily shopping, may be a fashionable phenomenon, but experts warn that animal welfare is in danger of being overlooked.
The use of emotional support animals has proliferated in recent years, with countless issues making headlines, from a peacock being denied a seat on a United Airlines flight to a cat being denied entry to Sainsbury’s.
However, experts say focusing on human needs should not ignore the potential impact on the animals themselves.
“We have to be careful about our enthusiasm and not lose sight of what the animal may need,” said Dr. Elena Rachin, associate professor of Health Services Research at York University, whose work explored assisted interventions by animals.
“It is our duty to ensure that the interest of the human-animal relationship is reciprocated in the best possible way.”
Emotional support animals are not trained to help their owners, as are assistance animals such as guide dogs, and in many countries – including the UK – they are not covered by the same laws that protect emotional support animals.
Instead, according to Professor Janet Howe Gerlach, of the University of Toledo, these animals are usually companion animals that help mitigate the impact of their owner’s physical or mental health thanks to the everyday benefits provided by the interaction between humans and animals.
Several studies have suggested that pet ownership can provide health benefits through a variety of mechanisms, from companionship to enhancing social interactions, exercise, and a sense of purpose. Some studies have also suggested that interactions with pets can produce positive effects, such as lowering blood pressure or increasing levels of oxytocin, a hormone associated with emotional bonds.
However, Rachen commented that it has been difficult to conduct large enough randomized controlled studies on the emotional support animals themselves. He pointed out that “it is very difficult to conduct accurate studies in this area.”
Research into the use of emotional support animals includes a pilot study by a team including Hoy-Gerlach that combined 11 participants with severe mental illness with a rescue dog or cat.
The results indicate that participants experienced an improvement in their mental health, and that decreases in levels of anxiety, depression and loneliness were observed, however, the pilot study was small and lacked a control group.
One of Hoy-Gerlach’s primary concerns is the welfare of animals, which suggests that being away from home can put them in stressful situations, which is a particular concern when it comes to non-pet animals.
“An emotional support animal is not trained to be in public,” he explained, adding that in contrast, service animals, such as guide dogs, receive a great deal of training to help them cope.
Rachin agreed with this observation. “If we then said that animals (emotional support) are allowed to travel on planes, or to go into, say, very crowded places where animals are not usually accepted, yes, sure, you might think that this would likely cause great stress.” “If you imagine the peacock on the plane, do you think the peacock enjoyed it? Probably not.”