Taking a pet everywhere for emotional support, from planes to the everyday store, can be all the rage, but experts have warned that animal welfare risks being overlooked.
The use of emotional support animals has exploded in recent years, with myriad cases making headlines, from the peacock who was denied a seat on a United Airlines plane, to the cat banned from Sainsbury’s.
But experts say the focus on human needs should not mean the potential impact on animals themselves is overlooked.
“We have to be careful with our enthusiasm and not lose sight of what the animal might need,” said Dr Elena Ratschen, associate professor of health services research at the University of York, whose work explored animal-assisted interventions.
“We have a duty here to ensure that the benefit of the human-animal relationship is reciprocal in the greatest possible way.
Emotional support animals are not trained to help their owners, as is the case with service animals such as guide dogs, and in many countries – including the UK – they are not covered by the same laws that protect service animals.
Instead, said Professor Janet Hoy-Gerlach of the University of Toledo, they are often pets that help lessen the impact of their owner’s physical or mental health status through daily benefits. of human-animal interaction.
A number of studies have suggested that pet ownership can provide health benefits through a variety of mechanisms, from companionship to boosting social interactions, exercise, and sense of purpose. Some studies have also suggested that interactions with pets can have positive effects, such as lowering blood pressure or increasing levels of oxytocin, a hormone associated with bonding.
However, Ratschen said it was difficult to conduct large enough randomized controlled studies on emotional support animals themselves. “It’s incredibly difficult to conduct rigorous studies in this area,” she said.
Among the research into the use of emotional support animals is a pilot study by a team including Hoy-Gerlach that paired 11 participants with severe mental illness with a rescue dog or cat. The results suggest participants experienced improvements in their mental well-being, with reductions in anxiety, depression and loneliness – however, the pilot was small and lacked a control group.
A key concern raised by Hoy-Gerlach is animal welfare, noting that being on the move could put animals in stressful situations, a particular concern when it comes to non-domesticated animals.
“An emotional support animal is not trained to be in public,” she said, adding that service animals such as guide dogs are given enough preparation to help them cope.
Ratschen agreed. “If we then say [emotional support] animals are allowed to travel on airplanes or to enter, for example, crowded places where animals [are] is not normally accepted, yes, of course you would think that this will most likely cause significant stress for them,” Ratschen said. “If you imagine the peacock on the plane, do you think the peacock liked it? Probably not.”