One peer-reviewed scientific study was recently published on the benefits of emotional support animals for people with serious mental illnesses such as chronic anxiety or depression. The researchers’ study found that participants experienced significant reductions in depression, anxiety and loneliness one year after adopting an animal into the family.
Emotional support animals do not need formal training or certification, unlike service animals. They are officially recognized by medical professionals as therapeutically necessary for people with certain conditions. These conditions can be anxiety, depression or addiction, which qualify as a disability under the Fair Housing Act. Emotional support animals are partners in people’s health and well-being. They always have a place in a person’s life.
In the study, all participants were considered low-income, had chronic mental illness and lived alone. They were specially interviewed and had their homes inspected. This was necessary to ensure the safety of the pet.
Before participants took in a cat or dog for emotional support, they took a test assessing their anxiety, depression and loneliness. The researchers also collected saliva samples to measure three markers of stress and attachment – cortisol, alpha-amylase and oxytocin.
Cortisol is a major stress hormone. Constant overexposure to cortisol increases the risk of depression, anxiety and cardiovascular disease.
Alpha-amylase is an enzyme found in saliva that can increase stress levels.
Oxytocin is a hormone that the brain releases during communication. This is why a person experiences warm and affectionate feelings when a loved one is around.
The researchers observed the study participants and took control measurements after one month, three months, six months, nine months and one year.
After 12 months, all participants took a psychological test again to assess their mental well-being. The study showed that one year after adopting animals for emotional support, not only did the participants have significantly lower levels of anxiety and depression, but they were also less lonely.
The idea for such a study came from a social worker early in her career. At the time, he was conducting a risk assessment of people contemplating suicide. One of the many questions he asked them was, “What stopped you from carrying out these thoughts?”
He got many different answers like, “I can’t do that to my family,” or “It’s against my faith.” But there were also regularly many responses like, “I don’t want to keep my pet.”
People cited their pets as the reason for their lives.
This study had no control group and a small sample size, so the researchers can’t make broad generalizations. But this may be only the first study of many. It could serve as a catalyst for further research using more rigorous methods. And then the benefits that can be derived from emotional support animals can be better understood and exploited.
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