Pets Help People Heal Emotionally
Nov. 05, 2019
I am happy to report that two of my three nonhuman life companions are documented Emotional Support Animals, more commonly known as ESAs.
And here, when I say they are “documented,” I don’t mean I just went online and ordered a certificate and a badge from one of the myriad websites eager to sell me one. (I mean, I did do that part as well, because on average people respond better to badges versus just taking my word for it and my doctor’s office doesn’t make ESA badges.)
But I also consulted with my longtime personal physician of more than a decade and she agreed to personally write a letter attesting to the significant emotional support both Pearl, my cockatiel, and Malti, my redfooted tortoise, provide to me on a daily basis.
In other words, Pearl’s and Malti’s ESAs are totally legit.
This is becoming a more important distinction today than it was when I first learned there was such an (um) animal as an ESA.
After all….emotional support. What does that even mean?
The dictionary tells me emotion is a state of mind. Not surprisingly, upon reading this I am instantly confused. The word “mind” conjures up associations with mental support, not emotional support. What is the difference? Is there a difference?
Wikipedia further informs me that emotion is a mental state associated with chemical changes taking place in my central nervous system. Upon reading this, I feel like I am playing a mental game of “warmer or colder” and things just got a lot colder inside my head.
I decide to switch gears and research the meaning of emotional support directly. This is slightly more helpful. I learn that giving compassion, empathy, concern, kindness – these are hallmarks of offering emotional support to another being. Better.
So then what does all this imply about an animal’s ability to be a source of emotional support to people? So interesting!
For starters, to me at least it implies that animals are capable of showing empathy, concern, kindness, compassion – a topic clearly not all researchers or homo sapiens can agree on. Most people agree that the domestic dog and miniature horse can give all of these types of support and more, because currently these are the only two non-human species permitted to be certified as official Service Animals.
In case you didn’t already know this (I didn’t until only recently) a service animal, or SA, is NOT the same thing as an ESA. Also, just so you know, you really don’t want to mix the two up…especially when posting about it publicly on social media.
Okay, back to the topic at hand. How exactly do animals help people heal emotionally, especially if no one, even the folks paid to look into these matters, is completely clear on just what “emotion” or “emotional support” even is?
My completely unofficial answer is: they just do.
In the same way I can tell the difference between when I am having a thought and when I am having an emotion, I know that the sight of Pearl, Malti and Bruce (Bruce is my rescued 3-toed box turtle) instantly creates more positive emotions than the ones I was feeling just before I saw them. If I was feeling emotions I would characterize as “good,” those emotions get better. If I was feeling emotions I would characterize as “not good,” those emotions become good…or at least a lot closer to good.
Spend more than a few minutes with any one of my “inner flock,” as a dear friend likes to call them, and I will be experiencing legit verifiable positive emotions for real. It literally never fails. Even if I am literally a sopping wet mess, in complete and utter emotional disarray, a single chirp from the feathered family member or the delicate tap-tap-tap of tiny tortugan claws across the hardwoods lifts me up out of whatever-it-is just like the eye of a hurricane passing directly overhead.
And if there is one thing I know all about, being born and raised in Texas, it is hurricanes.
I particularly like how the National Institutes of Health (NIH) describes the emotional/mental impact of what they are calling “the power of pets:”
“The foundations of mindfulness include attention, intention, compassion, and awareness,” Berger says. “All of those things are things that animals bring to the table. People kind of have to learn it. Animals do this innately.”
That they do. My animals are always centered directly in each moment. Each moment could bring infinitely great things or infinitely not-good things. Either way, they are going to be the very first to know about it and react accordingly. I, on the other hand, am more often to be found mired in my past or stranded in my future, for which reason my present has become unfairly fond of sneaking up on me and scaring me half to death.
As they say, even good stress is still stress. Plus, my ancient reptilian brain’s fight-or-flight response doesn’t care which it is (more about that in this blog post ). It just wants it to STOP. NOW.
When something unbelievably good happens to me and, as you might expect, I don’t believe it is meant for me and will stick around, this causes stress. When something unbelievably bad happens to me and I absolutely believe it is meant for me and will stick around, this causes stress. In these and all other cases, my knee-jerk response is to hunker down and seek out the company of my animals to weather the storm.
And actually, I think this may be the true purpose and focus of emotional support anyway, as well as why animals qualify to offer it to people. After all, we have been coexisting and often cohabitating with other species for millennia.
As long as we don’t get too persnickety about who domesticated whom (there are arguments on both sides), history tells us plants were the first non-human species to be domesticated.
[As a side note, I have truly never thought of plants as being “domesticated” until just now, so that topic may deserve its own blog post at some future point.]
Depending on who you ask, after plants came either dogs or goats or sheep, then poultry, then horses, oxen, cats, and so on and so forth. Domestication itself likely wasn’t discussed back in these early days, and not just because early us may not have had much formal language back then to discuss it with. Domestication probably wasn’t discussed because it didn’t need to be. Partnering up for mutual gain doesn’t need a translator….or it least it didn’t used to.
Today, all too often it does.
Today we impose much stricter divisions on who can serve whom in what ways and which species are eligible/capable and which are not. The most obvious example is in the service animal category, because to date human understanding there revolves around training an animal to do a specific job at some undetermined future point in time only if and as it may be needed.
That is a pretty vague job description, even by people standards!
Speaking of SA training, when it came time for my parents to document our family’s dachshund, Flash Gordon, this very issue arose right away. In another recent blog post here I shared the full story of how (we think) Flash saved my dad’s life. Flash didn’t just do this once, either. He did it nearly every night for several weeks before we caught on and made a doctor’s appointment for Dad.
However, Flash isn’t registered as a service animal, even though he was clearly providing more than, or other than, pure emotional support. The reason is, Flash wasn’t trained to body slam the bed and wake Dad up before his rapidly falling blood pressure stopped his heart and killed him. No one ever trained Flash to do that. He just did it, night after night after night until we took action. Then he stopped and hasn’t done it since.
So his badge reads “Emotional Support Animal,” not “Service Animal.”
But you take my meaning. It is a fine line. I also have a number of friends on social media whose non-dog/non-horse pet animals have learned on their own how to do important service-oriented tasks like alerting them to an oncoming faint or seizure or providing sighted navigation assistance in low-visibility conditions. But because these animals do not meet the species criteria (domestic dog, miniature horse) and they were not formally trained by someone other than the animal’s owner/carer or anyone at all to do these tasks, they do not qualify to become an SA – even if they meet all the other criteria (calm, polite, potty-trained, et al).
This is just where we are at right now in our intellectual understanding of the multi-faceted nature of the human-animal bond.
Happily, there is no documented species barrier for animals to become documented as Emotional Support Animals. And here again, when I say “documented,” I mean through the legitimate process of having a personal physician or other medical professional prescribe the animal as a source of support and write an official letter to that effect. So long as the professional deems the animal is a source of significant daily emotional support to the patient, that animal can qualify to become an ESA.
I like this much better. While not every homo sapiens I know craves the daily company of animals like I do and feels overtly unbalanced without it, those who do know that their world just doesn’t feel “right” somehow unless there are animals in it.
Professionals may need to (and do) designate specific categories under which an animal can provide significant emotional support. These categories most often come from the Diagnostic Standards Manual (DSM) that all psychiatric professionals the world over use to define, describe and diagnose mental/emotional health issues. I do understand this need. After all, if you are going to document and regulate something, you should absolutely do it right.
I just also think that every animal (and plant) is potentially an emotional support animal to someone, somewhere, and this is because homo sapiens and non-homo sapiens belong together, and always will, and always have.
With great respect and love,
Pets Help People Heal Emotionally