When it comes to battling mental health, pets are an amazing source of companionship and purpose. The relief they can bring deserves to be recognized and validated in our policies.
It is easy to bemoan the proliferation of emotional support (insert breed here). Headlines dripping with eye-rolls cry, “this has gone too far,” featuring pigs, kangaroos, and peacocks in public spaces, including aboard flights. I’m sure, like every policy, there are a few bad actors who take advantage of those with good intentions, but the message I want to offer those pet owners is this: I believe you. I am you.
In my life, animals have long been a source of comfort I’ve found difficult to obtain elsewhere. The wordless connections I’ve forged, primarily with horses and dogs, are some of the most meaningful bonds I’ve known.
Since a young age, I naturally gravitated toward my grandparent’s gentle yellow Labrador, Peanut, using his chest as a pillow while we cozied up to watch Disney movies at their lake house. I begged for a dog of my own, and my parents relented with a sweet and precocious English springer spaniel puppy we named Holly.
Through the ups and downs of my teens, Holly could always sense exactly what I needed, and I can now trace some of my anxious and depressive symptoms to those years in which Holly provided a steady anchor. Years later, Holly’s passing hit me as hard as the loss of some family members, and the house never quite felt the same with her gone.
For the next 7 years, I was largely animal-less, a state which I don’t believe I will ever be again. After much pestering, my husband Henry finally agreed to put our name on the waiting list for a bernedoodle puppy, whom we welcomed into our home months later and named Winnie.
Winnie was a sweetheart. She slept through the night from day one and didn’t get into the trouble I remembered from Holly. I hated leaving her to go to work, but I was adjusting to life with a puppy and loved my little shadow. Three weeks into our time with Winnie, she grew rapidly ill, requiring a visit to the animal hospital. We lost her less than 24 hours later, and I have never been so numb in my entire life.
Grief absolutely consumed me. I wondered why on earth we opened up ourselves to this pain by loving animals. It was excruciating. Worse yet was the expectation for me to carry on as if everything were alright.
“It’s just a dog,” I could feel society whispering. Animal loss is particularly challenging because of their unconditional love but also because of the ways their needs provide a template for our days. We truly do revolve around them and them around us.
Struggling, I decided to go to a pet loss support group hosted by the Humane Society. Four other women gathered in a small circle of folding chairs in a windowless room. We shared stories and snapshots of our fur babies, guided by a specialist who had also suffered the same kind of disenfranchised grief.
At the end, our leader offered a beacon of hope. She had recently adopted another dog. Perhaps, we, too, could love again. Instantly, I knew I would, that I had to open up myself to that pain.
A puppy was born on the same day that Winnie crossed the rainbow bridge. Three months later, Sidney Winifred arrived at our front door. I was a terrified helicopter parent, not even letting her on the sidewalk until she was fully vaccinated. Every peep she made for the first few months scared me, and I marked a tiny celebration when she had passed the 3-week mark with us, longer than Winnie ever had.
As the COVID-19 pandemic enveloped the globe and I began to work with a new therapist to unpack my long-standing diagnoses of depression and anxiety, my world shrunk around my fluffy buddy. Sidney became my best friend, and I quickly realized that while I was frequently activated by the thought of losing her again, she also put me at ease and grounded me.
Prone to depressive episodes, Sidney offered a reason to get out of bed every day. Her little routines felt empowering — I was not only keeping her alive but watching her thrive. Sidney is highly empathic as well. If I am in a different room and even start to get the sense that I might cry, she comes running in to comfort me with cuddles.
After consulting with my therapist and obtaining a written letter, Sidney officially became my emotional support animal (ESA), a role she is quite excellent at. As an anxious flier, I calmed down with Sidney in tow. I focused more on her than on the turbulence, noises, or claustrophobia that usually sends me into a panic, and she was a hit with passengers and crew alike.
I am not alone in experiencing this profound therapeutic benefit. Research suggests that animals can help “alleviate the symptoms of certain psychological issues.” But in early 2021, the Department of Transportation banned ESAs in airline cabins, requiring these animals to be registered as pets, which I find to be a gross overcorrection.
While many people are allergic to animals and deserve safe passage on commercial transportation, and animals should, of course, be vaccinated and trained, those, like myself, with mental health disorders deserve access to tools that provide relief, support animals included.
Beyond persuading private and public organizations to change their ESA policies, individuals in need can still benefit from their animal companions’ superpowers through a different process if it applies to their situation. While ESAs provide companionship and do not need any specialized training, the designation of psychiatric support animals is protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. To be designated as a service animal, the animal must be specifically trained in a task that supports an individual with mental or physical disabilities, such as reminding them to take medication.
As more research emerges highlighting the incredible benefits of animals to those suffering with depression and other mental differences, I hope for a world that accepts these unseen challenges as valid, believable, and worthy of solution. Preferably, a fluffy one.
Medically reviewed on January 09, 2023
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