Emotional support animals can have proven mental health benefits for those experiencing mental illness.
Researchers from The University of Toledo published the first empirical evidence that shows emotional support animals (ESAs) are beneficial for those experiencing anxiety, depression and loneliness.
“While there is a growing body of research on the health and mental health benefits of pets, until the publication of our study, there was no research published in a peer-reviewed journal that explicitly examined benefits of emotional support animals (ESAs). Our study is the first to investigate the benefits of animals explicitly identified as ESAs for individuals living with chronic mental illness. Our findings will hopefully serve as the foundation and justification for expanded research on ESAs, so we can better understand how to best utilize and support the human-ESA relationship for human (and animal!) well-being,” Dr. Janet Hoy-Gerlach, lead author of the study and a professor of social work at The University of Toledo told Theravive.
Hoy-Gerlach has been wanting to undertake a study of this kind since working as a mental health clinician and undertaking suicide risk assessments.
“One of the reasons people regularly told me they hadn’t acted on their suicidality was not wanting to leave their pets behind. It became clear to me the human-animal bond could be a powerful protective factor for human mental health, and that more needed to be done in human healthcare provision to recognize and leverage such potentially powerful benefits,” she said.
In undertaking the research Hoy-Gerlach and colleagues followed a small group of people who were paired with either a shelter dog or cat as part of the Hope and Recovery Pet Program.
The participants were all identified as at risk for social isolation, were low income, and had been referred by their mental health providers.
The researchers regularly tested those who participated for biomarkers relating to their stress and bonding with their animal. They also undertook surveys about the depression, anxiety and loneliness of participants prior to adopting their pet and at the end of the 12 month study.
After 12 months, the researchers found a significant decline in the depression, anxiety and loneliness experienced by the participants.
The participants also had higher amounts of the bonding hormone oxytocin and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
“In open-ended interviews, participants stated they felt their mental health had improved over the past 12 months and attributed this to their respective ESAs,” Hoy-Gerlach said.
“While not statistically significant, after ten minutes of focused interaction with their respective ESAs, the participants consistently experienced an increase in oxytocin (a bonding hormone associated with “feel good” feelings and decreases in heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure) and a decrease in cortisol (a stress response hormone). These biomarkers were measured through saliva samples. This finding suggests there are biological mechanisms at play in how animal companionship affects human health and mental health, and is consistent with similar research on stress and bonding biomarker changes related to human-animal interaction.”
Emotional support animals are support animals that don’t require special training or certification but are recognised in writing by a mental health or healthcare professional as therapeutically necessary for a person living with either a mental health or health condition.
“To be eligible for an ESA, a person’s condition must meet the definition of disability in the Fair Housing Act (FHA), and, the ESA must help alleviate distress or impairment related to the person’s condition. ESAs are no different in companion animals (pets) in how they behave and interact with humans. Companion animals can provide emotional, psychological, social, and physical benefits for humans,” Hoy-Gerlach said.
“The term 'emotional support animal' is unfortunately now associated with jokes, fraud, and high-profile media stories about air travel debacles involving animals. There has also been misinformation published about what kind of expertise is needed to appropriately verify ESA need, essentially serving to deter health and mental healthcare professionals from considering legitimate ESA requests from their patients/clients,” she said.
Hoy-Gerlach says despite these problems, emotional support animals serve an important role and deserve further consideration.
“Emotional support animals can offer quantifiable benefits for people living with mental illness, and warrant consideration by practitioners and additional investigation by researchers. The narrative of ESA fraud is click bait; there are many people quietly living their lives and legitimately benefiting from ESAs, but that isn’t going to make big news. This study underscores the import of legitimate role of ESAs in human well-being.”
Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald, News.com.au, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.