Pets as therapy for mental health


Animals are becoming more and more common as therapy companions for individuals with mental disorders and mental health issues.

Evidence is mounting that therapy animals are helpful to those with autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and other conditions. The traditional role of the "seeing eye dog" as the sole type of service animal is quickly evolving.

Emotional-Support Animals

A new type of service animal, which is usually a dog but can be any type of suitable pet, is coming to being. Called emotional-support animals (ESA), they are not always specially-trained for their role outside of standard obedience training. Their major goal, in many cases, is merely to be there when the patient needs them.

Some are highly specialized, however. Dogs for people with autism, for example, may be trained to "shield" the autism patient from strangers by standing between them in public or when approached. This gives the autistic person a feeling of security and support that might not always be available from other humans. Autism patients are also usually quicker to bond with an animal than with a human caregiver or healthcare provider. These dogs can also be trained to interrupt severe obsessive-compulsive outbursts that are a hallmark of many forms of autism spectrum disorder, especially when those outbursts could be disruptive or dangerous.

Other animals for patients with disorders such as PTSD or depression may be nothing more than companions. Though the animals have no special training, they are especially "cuddly" or sensitive to their human friends and thus make good emotional support bases for them.

Many of those who have an ESA say that they have been able to reduce medications, will go out into public more often, and have otherwise improved their quality of life.

Criticism of ESA

With this new emergence of support animals for something other than blindness, however, comes controversy. Because there are few recognized, national certification programs for support animals – especially ESAs – some say that many pet owners are abusing the system. Critics argue that people with emotional issues are getting doctors' notes to certify their pets as ESAs so they can take their pets places they would not otherwise be able to, such as aircraft, restaurants, etc.

Further, because the evidence for the animals' benefits are largely observational, some say that the studies surrounding their benefits are not verifiable as hard science. This is despite the growing pool of studies that indicate positive changes in patient histories, such as lower levels of medication, higher levels of social interaction, and reduced suicide risk.

Animal-assisted therapy is a relatively new field of study, but it is a much simpler and more cost-effective option for many patients. In many cases, it costs little or nothing for the patient; several support groups receive donated animals who are either bred or rescued and trained for the purpose.

The connection to the animals' help may not be easy to define scientifically; observationally, however, service animals can be of great help to people with many mental health issues.


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