Emotional Support Animal Companions

For many, animals are more than pets, they are family members who adopt us as much as we adopt them. They capture our hearts and help us to be better people by modeling loyalty and unconditional love. They are also known to be highly intuitive and can often tell when their humans are struggling emotionally or physically. Stories are myriad of dogs noticing tears on the cheeks of their person and coming over to lick their faces or cats who gently head butt and offer comforting purrs. It’s no wonder that animals are called into duty as emotional support therapy pets.

To clarify, the Americans With Disabilities Act differentiates between service animals and emotional support animals. A service animal may assist someone in a wheelchair by bringing them an object they are not able to reach or detect when their person is about to have a seizure and get them help. According to the ADA National Network, an emotional support animal, “is any animal that provides emotional support alleviating one or more symptoms or effects of a person’s disability.” This may take the form of providing solace in times of grief or depression, calming while the person may be in the midst of a panic attack, and helping to regulate the person’s nervous system. They can also create a reason for the person to get out of bed, to meet the animal’s needs for feeding, grooming and walks.

Trained and certified therapy animals visit hospitals and nursing homes to put smiles on the faces of patients and residents. A social worker acquaintance who served nursing home residents recalls the reactions of those who received visits. The dogs were able to bring elders, whose demeanor was emotionally stunted, out of their reverie, to interact by petting and cuddling their four-legged visitors. They looked forward to the days when they knew their friends were returning. A daughter of parents who were in hospice remembers with fondness the dogs of each of their caregivers who would jump onto her parents’ beds for shared affection. Her parents noted reduced pain and improved sleep as a result.

A therapist friend in a group practice recently had the chance to meet the therapy dog who belongs to one of her co-workers. The four-legged therapist had her own bed and toys in the office, She brought comfort to the therapist’s clients, and lifted the spirits of the colleagues who pet her as they crossed paths throughout the day. It looked like the dog enjoyed the interactions too.

There are protocols and procedures for an animal to be registered as an emotional support companion. An initial step is to consult with a mental health professional who deems it beneficial for you, and there are forms to complete to make it official.

In this time of telehealth visits for mental health care, it is not unusual for a client’s furry friend to join in sessions. This psychotherapist, (me), feels delight when seeing my clients’ dogs jumping up to place their noses near the camera, or my clients’ cats walking by with their tails swishing in the form of question marks. One client has her cat in the room and she and I include ther sweet feline in the session. Many of my clients show the therapist photos they have taken of her longtime companions, along with their kids’ photos. Another client has a beloved horse, (who is not present in the session). Although she might not refer to her horse as an emotional support or therapy animal, her horse provides companionship and motivation for her to move through depression, as my client visits the barn, feeds, grooms, and rides her horse and even mucks out the stall. Imagine THAT as a therapeutic intervention!

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