Note: This was originally published on How To Get Up From An All Time Low? on 5-6-15 and is unedited. In the month after I originally wrote this, Sunki the Service Animal tragically died but has been replaced by a new pair of bunnies.
I have been itching for several months to write a post about emotional support animals for mental health problems – for depression, anxiety, and PTSD, most specifically, although I wanted to discuss the general impact having a pet can make on your mental health. I’m almost certainly not going to do the topic justice because there’s so much to say about it.
What animals can provide emotional support?
Medium-large dogs are traditionally seen as service animals because they are trainable and have buckets of stamina and strength, and they are the right height for a blind person to be able to find if they drop the harness. But when it comes to mental health, I would argue very strongly that ANY animal can be an emotional support animal. Why? Because if you are getting emotional support from having your African Land Snail around, then that’s an emotional support animal. Personally, I like the soft and fluffies with four paws and some kind of a tail.
What’s the difference between an emotional support animal and a service dog?
Emotional support animals are different to service dogs. A service dog can be helpful to someone with specific needs (such as suicide, see further down) but an emotional support animal has a broader and more therapeutic role, rather than a task-assistance role. A service dog can also provide emotional support (I’m sure any readers with a guide dog or hearing dog will attest to the connection they have with their service dog), but an emotional support animal doesn’t need the same training or rigour; often, the emotional support animal just needs to be there or be stroked, petted etc. In some countries this is classed as a service animal and there’s no distinction.
This man, for example, has an emotional support rabbit. The rabbit is trained to provide emotional support, and is registered as a service animal. Casper lives in Canada and Sunki-Tiponi the service rabbit takes him all over their hometown where they get to have amazing adventures and experience life beyond the great indoors. The bunny gets him out of the house and has his own stroller so Sunki-Tiponi is self-contained, doesn’t get stressed and he can’t make a mess of places from his stroller. I’ve read their blog for a few years (it’s written in the first person of the rabbit, which is an awesome perspective-taking exercise), and have seen that some places are more ready to accept a service rabbit than others. In the UK, I have heard that people struggle to even get a dog recognised as a support animal for mental health, but I really don’t understand why the species of the animal should matter. The level of support given to a person by having their familiar, comforting, calming pet with them should not be underestimated. I’m watching two of my rabbits wash each others faces as I write this, and I know that there have been times when I thought I would have conducted myself a lot better in public and I know I would have avoided a panic attack if I’d had any one of my rabbits with me. I have had dogs in the past and I know that I used to feel a lot more confident going out with a dog than just on my own, but you can’t take a rabbit out without shop security turning you away and bus drivers refusing to sell you a ticket.
Next, let’s look at the growing evidence for support animals for various mental health conditions, which I am defining as an animal who is supportive of a person in distress, not a specifically trained traditional “service animal” because they are trained to generally do tasks for a person, which is really more useful when thinking of physical impairment such as blindness:
Dogs for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
This article discusses a study carried out in the USA and shows that, while “service dogs” can help veterans with PTSD, it is far more likely that any dog would be beneficial. It does sound like the veterans association have missed the point, citing an example of the service dogs for the study being trained to scan the house for a hidden intruder. People with PTSD need to get out of such hyper-vigilance, not have it reinforce by regular behavioural patterns. Additionally, a dog doesn’t need to be trained to provide emotional support – in most cases of people who actually have an emotional support animal, the support is provided by the animal just being there. That’s why animals of any species can provide emotional support; it should depend on the wishes of the sufferer, not the wishes of society.
Dogs for depression
Dogs for Depression is a British charity which is advocating dogs as emotional support animals. While they obviously specialise because that’s what they do, I feel a bit like many sufferers of mental health are being excluded from having a valid emotional support animal because they either don’t want or have a dog, or they don’t have depression. The work that dogs for depression has done for people with depression and their emotional support animals is outstanding and the NHS is starting to realize that this might actually save them a lot of money in all the different interventions, but there are other mental health conditions and other animals that could benefit from the same recognition.
Service dogs for suicide (potential trigger warning this paragraph)
Everything doesn’t change at once. But we have to keep moving towards improvement. Suicide rates in 2007 were 3000 people per day around the world (source here) according to WHO statistics. That’s just over two people per minute. I couldn’t find anything more recent that was reliable. Over 90% of those are people with diagnosable mental health conditions (source here). If people with conditions leading to suicide have support animals, they could de-escalate or the alarm could be raised. A dog, specifically, could be trained to de escalate a person’s suicide attempt based on sound and smell cues that the person emitted that could trigger the dog to intervene, in the same way a service dog for the blind prevents them from crossing the road in front of traffic. Or the dog could be trained to press a panic button to get emergency services to the sufferer in the event of an attempt. This might sound far fetched, but do bear in mind that dogs have been trained to spot epileptic seizures before they happen (source here).
These are not the only conditions that could benefit from emotional support animals; longstanding or complex grief, borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder and agoraphobia could all be alleviated by having a loyal companion by the sufferer’s side, 24/7 if necessary. Think how less clingy the borderline personality sufferer would be if they had a pet who was always with them and never abandoned them (perhaps something with a long life-span so the fear of abandonment wasn’t triggered by the timely death of the animal, but even a dog for fifteen years would be less frequency of abandonment than most borderline personality disorder sufferers get to live with). In bipolar disorder, the depression side of the disorder would be helped, but also the anxiety that is caused by most mood stabilizers. In agoraphobia, the animal could help the person feel safe leaving the house. The list of potential conditions and ways an emotional support animal can help people is almost endless, and shouldn’t be limited by things that are “proven” by empirical data because by the time we get that data, more people’s lives are being ended too soon through mental distress.
Why doesn’t society just let this happen?
There are two significant problems which have put a barrier in the way of getting the law changed to recognize that any species of small animal can help (guided by the needs of the user), and that more conditions can be helped: Money, and fear of volume.
Basically, one reason the powers that be don’t want to change the law to recognize support animals for unseen disabilities because they would have to provide financial assistance for anyone with a mental health problem to get a support animal (see the source for the paragraph on PTSD dogs, above). The ease with which some unscrupulous doctors diagnose people with particular mental health problems, and the small minority of people who have made a lifestyle out of lying to get benefits, have spoiled it for everyone else. Service dogs for the blind, or for other physical disabilities, are a big investment and costs are often covered by charities and other organizations who have funds for this (depending on where you live). If any mental health condition was grounds for a support animal, they fear that the money for people with physical disabilities would drain away. I do believe this comes down to the fundamental myth that people with physical, visible disabilities need more help, deserve more funding, and have more of a chance to put their lives back together, than those with mental health problems. If you factor in that more people have a mental health condition than a physical disability, you can see very clearly that the money is being ringfenced for people who are visibly disabled. It wasn’t very long ago when deafness was perceived as a learning difficulty and deaf children were treated like second class citizens and not deserving of the same life chances as hearing children. But is money really going to be taken from people who already get it? Even service dogs are generally provided by specific charities for specific conditions, and they pay for the training, and in places such as America, the Veterans Association will cover training and veterinary bills for physically disabled veterans; but emotional support animals really only need to be trained to behave themselves in public, and the start up cost of getting a rabbit or hamster is much less than that of buying a dog, most shelters give animals away for free (including cats and dogs) or for a donation, and it would give the animal and the owner a new chance of life if these pets could be recognized as emotional support animals.
Fear of Volume of Animals Over-Running Society:
The bigger issue, I think, is that policy makers believe that if the general public knew that emotional support animals existed, they would just take their pets everywhere with them. Personally, I think people should be able to with any hygienic small animal (as in, the RCVS definition), given the number of undiagnosed mental health conditions and the number of people actually likely to decide to do this. Anyone feeling strongly that they want or need to do this is probably in need of the emotional support of taking their small animal with them. If you’ve got a rabbit, a chinchilla, a hamster, and you want to take it to ASDA (aka Wal-Mart in the US), that should be legal and acceptable. As long as you are controlling the animal, it’s hygienic, and the animal is not being distressed by the situation, it’s fantastic to think that such a small change could help so many people get back out and living life. The idea of just putting an animal in a small baby stroller with its food, water and toys, and going about your day, makes perfect sense when you consider all the places babies can be taken. Most small animals are quieter than babies so less disruptive to society. If workplaces changed their rules to allow small animals (again, as long as the owner is in control and the animal is not in distress, and it’s not causing distress to others), think how much money could be saved in not having to pay unemployment disability benefits or sick pay to people who want to work but can’t leave the house.
So both of these reasons for society and policy not being in favour of this boil down to this one theme: Mental health support animals are not recognized because too many people would need one, and they could help too many people, and the perception is that our society’s infrastructure and public order would not be able to cope with so many non-human animals having access to buildings and public transport. The reality is that it would improve public order and infrastructure by enabling more disabled people to live productive lives and get back on with life more quickly, becoming contributing taxpayers, working, and enabling any carers to work and pay more tax, so the benefits to society of support animals are profound.