I’m sure we’ve all seen memes that say the best therapist has four legs and fur. When I’ve been feeling cranky, I have occasionally written responses to the people who post them. They demean the very hard and real work that psychiatric and psychological professionals do. And after all, what do the memes really say? “Have a mental illness? Just get a dog.”
Still, there are circumstances in which an animal can help a person with a mental or emotional disorder. It’s not as simple as going to the pound and picking out a pup, though. For an animal to assist a psychiatric (or other) patient, there are a number of hoops for the person to jump through.
Most people nowadays are used to the presence – or at least the idea – of service animals such as seeing eye dogs. Less common are Therapy Animals, Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) and Psychiatric Service Animals (PSAs). But they all have parts to play in promoting and maintaining mental health in persons with bipolar and other emotional disorders.
Therapy animals are most often used with geriatric patients and children with emotional disturbances. In some nursing homes and convalescent centers you find programs that bring small animals to interact with the residents. Even farm animals – chickens, lambs, piglets – may spark memories that had been hidden away for years. The animals help residents get in touch with those memories and caregivers get in touch with residents. Libraries sometimes bring calm, well-behaved dogs in so that children can read to them. The soothing presence of a well-trained dog can help a child self-regulate her or his emotions – and get reading practice at the same time.
Emotional Support Animals are dogs or cats (or, less commonly, other animals such as miniature horses or guinea pigs) that live with and provide comfort to a person with a psychiatric disorder. Typically, in order for an emotional support animal to be allowed in rental housing, documentation such as a letter is required from a physician or mental health professional stating that the animal’s presence alleviates symptoms of a patient’s psychiatric condition – one that qualifies as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Regulations covering comfort or emotional support animals apply mostly to residences and airlines, but not other places where service animals are allowed, such as stores, restaurants, and public buildings. There, health codes trump emotional support.
Some folks confuse Emotional Support Animals with Psychiatric Service Animals. They think that “training” a dog to offer a kiss on command, or jump in their lap, or be hugged is a task qualifying the animal as an official service animal. While these are indeed ways that an animal can calm a person in distress, service animals, including psychiatric service animals, must receive special training that teaches them how to alleviate the symptoms of an ADA-defined disability.
Legitimate tasks for PSDs (psychiatric service dogs) include counterbalance/bracing for a handler dizzy from medication, waking the handler at the sound of an alarm when the handler is heavily medicated and sleeps through alarms, doing room searches or turning on lights for persons with PTSD, blocking persons in dissociative episodes from wandering into danger (i.e., traffic), leading a disoriented handler to a designated person or place, and so on.
In The Possibility Dogs: What I Learned from Second-Chance Rescues About Service, Hope, and Healing, author Susannah Charleson recounts how rescue dogs – the unwanted, unlikely-to-be-adopted dogs that languish in shelters or are destroyed – have been matched with persons who need them.
One of the stories she tells involves training a dog to help a person with OCD. The dog was taught to identify when the handler had returned to the stove three times (to check the burners). Then the dog would interrupt the person, leaning against her leg to distract her. For a person who could approach a door but not go outside, the dog brought a leash to encourage leaving the house for a fun activity.
By the way, forget about cats as service animals. Just try training a cat to do anything it doesn’t want to do. (I know that cats have been trained to run obstacle courses for agility competitions, but that doesn’t really qualify as a service for an individual with a disability.) If you are able to register your cat as an Emotional Support Animal or get a medical/psychiatric recommendation, you may be able to have your cat live with you in a pet-free community, or have the fee for a pet waived. But that’s about it where cats are concerned.
So, animals can’t be actual therapists, but they can assist in treatment and life skills for people who need help with mental disorders. When I’m less cranky, I keep scrolling past the pet-as-therapist memes and feel grateful that my cats offer me emotional support, whether they’re trained to do so or not.