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Stanford University School of Medicine

Who medically needs a pet? A psychiatry resident shares her perspective


Pets are family for many people. So few of us would bat an eyelash if someone said they have a dog or cat for emotional support.

Similarly, Stanford psychiatry resident Jessica Gold, MD, had written notes granting her patients an emotional support animal (ESA) without giving it much thought. Then she noticed a sharp increase in the number of dogs and cats outside her psychiatry building. Gold explains in a Huffington Post essay:

Despite my belief in its harmlessness, I also had a high degree of skepticism around the actual concept of an ESA. Though my patients all had legitimate psychiatric diagnoses, my gut reaction as a prescriber and travel consumer was 'OK. Who actually medically NEEDS a pet?' And, on the flip side, 'What pet ISN’T providing emotional support?'

Gold knew that emotional support dogs were different from “therapy” dogs and “service animals.” She also knew that pets — dogs in particular — were therapeutic, but she couldn't clearly explain how. So, she decided to dig in and do some research:

[I] did not truly comprehend the extent of the abuse of the term 'emotional support' — as in emotional support llamas, snakes, and turtles. This has lead to an increase in pets on airplane cabins each year to nearly 100,000 and, in California alone, a 10-fold increase in the number of 'psychiatric' service dogs. Though I have never prescribed an emotional support pig and laugh slightly at the idea, in writing my notes, I unknowingly contributed to an epidemic of sorts.

After a guilt-fueled literature search, Gold unearthed a number of research papers that found, "for a wide range of disorders (Alzheimer's, schizophrenia, developmental disabilities), animal therapy has led to positive outcomes." Support animals, such as dogs, were also beneficial in improving social and communication skills, easing anxiety, lifting mood and boosting empathy.

As Gold continued her research, the definition of an emotional support animal suddenly, unexpectedly, became clear. Her beloved dog of eight years died.

"The truth is mourning the loss of an emotional support makes sense," Gold writes. "Ultimately, while I don’t know about llamas, or snakes, I know about dogs. And, I will never doubt my prescription of one to a depressed or anxious patient again."

Previously: Therapy dogs take a bite out of student stress before examsPsychiatric trained dogs help in the battle of PTSD and Horse therapy could help people cope with early-onset dementia
Photo by llee_wu

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