Support Animals Aren't a Waste of Time or a Panacea

Emotional support animals can't always keep doctors away, but can work wonders.

Posted Apr 19, 2018

A recent essay in the print edition of New Scientist by Nic Fleming called "Can animals keep the doctor away?" is a very interesting read about the use of nonhuman animals (animals) as "therapy for everything from depression to autism." Mr. Fleming's essay is also published online with the title "Why emotional support animals may be a waste of time," but for now it's only available to subscribers. I subscribe to New Scientist and I decided to write this brief essay in response to a few queries sent to me about some of the sweeping statements and qualifications (that might be missed) made in Mr. Fleming's discussion with renowned University of Bristol anthrozoologist, Dr. John Bradshaw, author of The Animals Among Us: How Pets Make Us Human and other books on animal behavior and human-animal interactions. For those people with more than passing interesting in the topic of emotional support animals and animal assisted therapy, I recommend purchasing Mr. Fleming's essay. 

Early in Mr. Fleming's essay he writes, "Bradshaw tells me that there is almost no evidence for the claims made about animals and mental health, not just for emotional support animals, but virtually all forms of animal therapy – and even pets," despite the fact that many physicians -- 97% in the United States -- claim that living with a pet has health benefits. Dr. Bradshaw explains, and he is right on the mark, that many studies do not have the proper controls, and that there are often confounding variables that taint the results. For example, "a study in California last year found that children in families with pets were healthier and more active than those without. However, the dog owners were also 3.5 times more likely to own their own home. The researchers concluded the positive effects were the result of socio-economic factors."

Despite the fact that Dr. Bradshaw is quoted as making the sweeping statement, "there is almost no evidence for the claims made about animals and mental health," in fact, there are many studies that show that emotional and other support animals work for some people, but surely not everyone. They're not a cure-all. For more discussion and data please see "Companion Animals Help People with Mental Health Problems," "Animal Assisted Play Therapy: An Integrative Approach," Dr. Milena Penkowa's Dogs & Human Health: The New Science of Dog Therapy & Therapy Dogs, Dr. Aubrey Fine's Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy, Fourth Edition: Foundations and Guidelines for Animal-Assisted Interventions, and many studies can also be found here.  

Despite what "the science" says, many people benefit from emotional support animals

The main point is that some people do, indeed, benefit from choosing to bring a support animal into their lives, despite what "the science" says. And, the available science is not a drop in the bucket.  Along these lines, in Mr. Fleming's essay we also read the following qualifying statement: "None of this is to deny that animals might help people. But without research that controls for other effects, we can’t know which animal in what setting might be best. The lack of solid evidence means, for example, that the US Department of Veterans Affairs has refused to cover the cost of service dogs for veterans with PTSD." (my emphasis) 

A few people who read Mr. Fleming's essay missed this qualification, but it is a very important one to which to pay careful attention, because there's ample evidence that emotional support animals do work very well for some people, including veterans with PTSD. I know some people for whom their emotional support animals have been "life changers." I've worked hands on with some veterans of war and their emotional support dogs, and across the board everyone in the room agreed that their dog was a savior (for further discussion about the effect of emotional support animals on veterans please see). Dr. Lorin Lindner's forthcoming book Birds of a Feather: A True Story of Hope and the Healing Power of Animals​ also discusses numerous examples where emotional support animals have helped veterans in need.1

In Mr. Fleming's essay we also read that the ever-cautious Psychology Today writer, Dr. Hal Herzog, "has argued that emotional support animals might prolong an individual’s psychological issues by enabling them to avoid or delay dealing with their problems in other ways." Dr. Herzog is writing about a research paper called "Effects of Interactions With Animals On Human Psychological Distress." The results of this study aren't at all surprising, because it's possible that while support animals work for some people, they don't for others. One important reason is that some people might not fully understand the enormous responsibility entailed in bringing another animal into their lives. '

Choosing to share your home and heart with a dog (or other companion animal) is a huge responsibility that could be highly stressful for people who just don't have the time, energy, money, or knowledge to give the nonhuman the best life possible. The dogs can suffer because of this. I've known, as I imagine many others also have, people with good intentions who choose to live with a dog and then simply cannot do what's needed for their nonhuman friend. These people then get stressed out because they can't give their dog what she or he needs. So for them, the choice is not a good one, despite their good intentions (for more discussion on this point please see "Companion Animals Help People with Mental Health Problems" and the formal study titled "Dog ownership and the risk of cardiovascular disease and death – a nationwide cohort study" on which this essay is based). 

Emotional support animals can't always keep doctors away, but can work wonders

Can emotional support animals keep doctors away? No, not always. They're surely not a cure-all, but this doesn't mean they don't for some people. So, if a support animal works for you, ignore both the science that shows for some people they don't work and sweeping generalizations that suggest they're a waste of time, and find an animal who can help you along, as long as it's good for both of you (for more discussion of this topic please see "Living With a Dog Is Good, If It's Good for You and the Dog").

At the end of Mr. Fleming's essay we read, "'I’m far from anti-pets,' Bradshaw says. 'It’s part of being human. What I am is pro-realism. If people understand their pets better, both they and their animals will benefit.'” He is absolutely correct about how understanding who another animal is and knowing what they want and need are essential for giving them the best life possible. And, being cautious about the benefits of living with an emotional support animal, is not to be anti-pet or anti-animal.

It's essential that people become fluent in dog or the ways in which other animals communicate when they choose to bring them into their lives. The on-going social relationships must work for all of the individuals, human and nonhuman. They must be two-way affairs in which everyone benefits.

I look forward to studies that focus on all individuals, human and nonhuman, who are a part of the special ongoing social relationship that is necessary during all sorts of animal assisted therapy. When it's a two-way affair, it's a win-win for all; however, far too often it's not, and the nonhumans suffer because they don't get what they want and need.

1I will be posting an interview with Dr. Lindner when her book is published in mid-May. 

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