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Emotional Support Animals: Myth or Must?

Aug 10, 2022 | Mental Wellness

Key Takeaways:

  1. There is a new study that provides a scientifically evidenced foundation for the phrase “a dog is a man’s best friend.”
  2. Emotional Support Animals and Service Animals are not the same – they differ in cost, support provided, and legislative protection.
  3. The difference in legislative protections for ESAs v SAs fit into a broader conversation around equal access to quality healthcare for those with “visible” and “invisible” diagnoses.

We’ve all heard the phrase “a dog is a man’s best friend,” but is there any scientific evidence to back that claim?

Whether or not a dog is a man’s best friend, there is important data that shows that Emotional Support Animals or ESAs do provide important symptom management for adults who experience severe mental health conditions. In 2021, the University of Toledo School of Social Work partnered with other academic institutions to evaluate the benefits of Emotional Support Animals. In this study, adults with Severe Mental Illnesses (SMIs) were followed for one year and assessed at the one, three, six, and nine month intervals for biomarkers that would indicate that their symptoms were being managed. Qualitative data was also collected one year post-study. This study showed that Human Animal Interaction (HAI) in the form of ESAs “were perceived to promote aspects of mental health recovery…and provide positive support for ESA companionship as an intervention.”

As this was a pilot study, more research is needed to evaluate the specific benefits that ESAs provide across diverse populations over time. However, the treatment of ESAs and Service Animals in disability anti discrimination legislation has been a contested topic for the last few years and it will be interesting to see how and if this research impacts that debate.

What are the major differences between Service Animals and ESAs?

Cost. Service Animals require specific training, certification, and registration with the National Service Animal Registry that can cost a minimum of $17,000 to complete. This can vary with grant seeking and fundraising campaigns, but the financial barrier to owning a service animal is undeniable. ESAs on the other hand, are not required to go through these steps to attain their status. Typically, a letter from a licensed mental health professional that demonstrates the therapeutic necessity of the animal to their human’s life is all that is needed.

Support Provided. The types of aid that ESAs and Service Animals provide to their humans differ as well. The majority of Service Animals are trained to assist with “visible disabilities” such mobility and stability differences or those who experience blindness. On the other hand, ESAs are often utilized by those with “invisible disabilities” such as mental health conditions that require assistance with emotional and physiological regulation.

While this might seem like a niche topic, the debate over recognizing ESAs as therapeutically necessary fits squarely into the larger debate of how our government and health care systems respond to and treat visible versus invisible disabilities and illnesses. A tangible example of this happened in January 2021 when the US Department of Transportation stopped requiring all airlines to allow ESAs. This measure sends the message that the DOT views the needs met by Service Animals as more dire than the needs met by ESAs.

At the end of the day, an Emotional Support Animal should not be thought of as a replacement for engaging in the challenging but rewarding work of mental health therapy. Understanding the root of emotional dysregulation, managing the symptoms of anxiety and depression, and developing healthy coping mechanisms that work for you will yield the most sustainable and long-lasting results for your mental health.

If you are considering an ESA, ask yourself: “What anxiety is my animal helping me manage?” Start My Wellness clinicians are available and ready to work with you on uncovering and processing the answers.

Dr. Anton Babushkin

Author: Anton Babushkin, PhD

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