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As any pet owner will tell you, the emotional bond between animals and humans is as strong as any relationship – and often longer-lasting.
But when airlines started banning emotional support animals from flights a few years ago, social media was flooded with jokes mocking the very concept. Fast food chain Popeyes advertised its own ’emotional support chicken’, and the stars of Jurassic World did a skit about an ’emotional support velociraptor’.
The notion of emotional support animals gets a mixed reception, but there’s actually strong and growing evidence of the importance of pets as a source of support, especially when it comes to our mental health.
It’s something that struck Dr. Lindsay Dewa, advanced research fellow at Imperial College London’s Institute of Global Health Innovation, during her research into how lockdown has impacted young people’s mental health.
‘A lot of people talked about their active coping strategies… and one that really came through was dog walking,’ she says.
Several people interviewed as part of Lindsay’s study said their pets had been vital in helping them cope over the past year. Her findings chimed with her own experience with her Border Terrier, Baxter, who she describes as ‘the biggest source of support I could have asked for’.
‘He definitely reduces my stress levels and anxiety,’ she says. ‘But more importantly I think he made me have a routine. Just going out for two walks a day, the sense of walking combined with nature, and being away from your flat I think just really helped.’
Lindsay’s research showed a clear link between keeping a routine and improved mental health during lockdown, and for many people, their pets played a crucial part.
This role isn’t limited to lockdown. Mounting research backs up the impact of animals on our mental wellbeing, with dogs in particular found to boost our serotonin and reduce levels of the stress-hormone cortisol.
It’s these benefits that led Erin Chalk to first consider getting an emotional support animal of her own. She’d always wanted a dog, and began looking into their psychological benefits while going through a particularly bad patch with her own mental health.
After contacting various adoption centres, she finally found Rosey – a rescue dog from Romania. ‘I always say Rosey saved me, and I saved her,’ she tells UNILAD.
Erin lives with anxiety, depression, body dysmorphia and OCD, and says that Rosey has not only been a companion, but a way for her to be able to look past her own struggles. ‘The thing that I most struggled with, when I was really in the depths of mental illness, was getting out of bed’ she says. ‘But now I don’t have an excuse, because I have a responsibility for her, and if I don’t get up and take her for a walk no one else is going to do it.’
‘I remember hours and hours [where] I’ve just sat in my brain and been awful to myself. But with Rosey I don’t have the opportunity to do that…it’s like she’ll do something hilarious and it just immediately sparks me back into the present moment.’
There’s an important distinction to be made between animals trained to support people with certain psychological conditions and our everyday trusted companions, and it’s worth reminding that pets aren’t a substitute for other treatments for those struggling with mental illness.
Erin goes to therapy regularly and takes medication for her mental health conditions, but says that Rosey is a key part of her wider coping strategies. She’s keen to remove the stigma of mental illness, and discusses her own experiences on her YouTube and TikTok channels.
Emotional support animals aren’t well understood in the UK, but their importance has long been acknowledged by mental health professionals. Animal-assisted intervention is a recognised type of therapy that involves using animals – often dogs – to help promote positive social, emotional and cognitive functions in patients.
TheraPaws is one group that provides dogs for animal-assisted intervention programs. Founded by London-based animal charity Mayhew in 2012, TheraPaws pairs volunteers and their dogs with programs in care homes, hospitals, schools and beyond, and has seen first hand the support the animals can provide.
‘The dogs are able to see who needs what kind of engagement – they’ve actually been able to interpret that through body language.’ says Duschanca Singh, corporate and community officer at TheraPaws. ‘The dogs are always watching us and seeing what we need, and it’s a jointly beneficial relationship.’
TheraPaws’ work has been the subject of research by Middlesex University on the benefits of animal-assisted intervention. The study found that among care home residents who received regular TheraPaws visits, quality of life increased by 12%, emphasising the very real benefits of animal interaction.
It’s not just dogs, either. Giulia Esposito, a self-care blogger from Toronto, keeps birds in her apartment as well as a rabbit called Honey, and says they’re a huge source of relief from her day-to-day life.
‘Even just watching them and their natural behaviours, like playing with each other or destroying their toys, it’s really distracting from your own problems,’ she says. ‘You’re in the moment with the animals, and it’s just so nice watching a bit of nature.’
Owning a pet isn’t an option for everyone, of course. They’re a big financial and time commitment, and often difficult to swing with a landlord.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways to benefit from animals. As a touring comedian, Juliette Burton isn’t in a position to have her own dogs, but dog-sitting for other owners has helped her to manage her own mental wellbeing and mental illnesses.
Juliette has lived with mental illness since she was a teenager, having been diagnosed with 13 different mental health conditions and spent five different stays in mental health facilities for eating disorders and suicidal ideations. Dog-sitting, she says, helped keep some of those illnesses at bay during the dark winter days of the second lockdown.
‘It’s one of those strange things with mental illness… when I can’t look after myself, when my mental illnesses are so thick and debilitating that I cannot look after myself, if there’s a dog to look after…. it does shift something,’ she says. ‘It doesn’t cure the mental illnesses, but I think I haven’t relapsed as strongly as I would have otherwise.’
For Juliette – who is an ambassador for Rethink Mental Illness – the dogs help facilitate other ways to manage her mental health, whether it’s exercise, fresh air, or the physical touch she’s been missing from friends.
She often combines dog walks with phone therapy or catch-ups with friends. And on days when human contact is too much, the dogs will always be there as ‘a little bridge between the isolation of mental illness and human connections’.
As Juliette gets ready to head back out on tour next month, she’s having to think about scaling back her dog-sitting, but she encourages other looking to benefit from a human-animal bond to give it a try. ‘I’m now in love with these dogs and I don’t want to break up with them,’ she says.
‘Sure, the conversations are a little one-sided, but then I never listened to what my friends said anyway.’
If you’re experiencing distressing thoughts and feelings, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is there to support you. They’re open from 5pm–midnight, 365 days a year. Their national number is 0800 58 58 58 and they also have a webchat service if you’re not comfortable talking on the phone.
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