The controversial therapy of “emotional support animals”

As Boston grieves after recent terrorist attack, charity workers have flown in “comfort dogs” to console residents. The Lutheran Church Charities Comfort Dogs are a team of canines that “sense the sadness” of people and work on cheering them up. “People talk to dogs -- They are like furry consolers,” said Tim Hetzner, president of the charity.

These comfort dogs are a good example of what doctors call Emotional Support Animals (ESAs). ESAs  are a novel psychological therapy. Doctors prescribe them for patients suffering from depression and social withdrawal in the belief that the unconditional affection of the pet can ameliorate the effects of these illness. And in some countries, such as the US, the law exempts ESAs from standard domestic pet regulations.

But a recent Time Magazine article has reignited debate over the merits of ESAs. The article described a number of examples of ESAs which provide invaluable support for people with serious mental illnesses, but vex fellow residents.

One case is that of Petey the pig, a 40-pound domestic pet of New Yorker Danielle Forgione. Ms Forgione purchased the pet to help deal with the death of her brother in a motorcycle accident. (Here is a link to Petey's Facebook page.) The New York City Department of Health has ordered Ms Forgione to remove the pet following complaints from neighbours.

American bioethicist Maurice Bernstein has posed some relevant questions in his blog:

“A question can be asked as to why in our society it is necessary to turn to lower animals to provide emotional comfort: Is there no adequate benefit available from inter-personal relationships? Or is a common denominator of the discomforted patient the lack of personal ability to develop a helpful relationship with another person who could provide needed emotional support?”.

The Americans with Disabilities Act was amended in 2011 to state that creatures which are not trained to perform specific services to a patient are no longer considered "service animals" and are no longer permitted in environments where they pose problems with regard to safety, sanitation or disturbance.

This article is published by Xavier Symons and BioEdge.org under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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