It is not uncommon to come across an emotional support animal (ESA) in the US – particularly on a plane. Aviation regulations allow animals to board a flight as long as a doctor has signed a letter stating it helps its owner deal with a medical condition. Delta Air Lines carried 250,000 such animals in 2017 – up 150% on 2015.
Yet experts are sceptical of the health benefits. ESAs – including dogs, pigs, hamsters and ducks – are used to treat conditions ranging from anxiety and depress to PTSD and even addiction. Yet very little empirical evidence exists to validate these therapies.
In a recent interview with New Scientist, anthro-zoologist John Bradshaw was scathing in his criticism of public health programs involving ESAs.
“When you stroke a pet, your oxytocin and endorphin levels go up, your blood pressure comes down and your heartbeat gets more regular...But there’s no evidence that this translates into anything that lasts even a couple of hours, let alone a lifetime.”
Bradshaw argues that animals may be used effectively to help autistic children learn how to read. Yet programs such as using dolphins to help mature adults overcome depression have no evidential support.
“There’s a huge amount of mumbo jumbo surrounding it... It might be fun, but there are no independent studies that have shown any beneficial effect whatsoever.”
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