Emotional support animals: Meet the four-legged therapists

Pets that provide emotional support really are a thing – their owners say they’re invaluable in times of stress. But how would you feel about a dog for a deskmate or a pig on a plane? Stuart Heritage reports.

Emotional support animals
James Middleton with three of his nine dogs: he says they played a vital role in his recovery from depression. Image: DASA, CRHA/BACKGRID UK

On the petition website change.org, nestled among gems such as ‘Get a KFC built in Felixstowe’ and ‘Prevent my brother from ever getting this haircut again’, you’ll find an online petition called ‘Make emotional support animals UK legal’.

Chances are you already know what an emotional support animal (ESA) is, because you’ve heard all the ridiculous stories from America about them. You’ll remember the woman who took her emotional support pit bull on a flight, only for it to maul a five-year-old at the airport. Or maybe you read the story about the peacock that was barred from flying from New York to Los Angeles (its owner had offered to buy its own ticket). Perhaps you heard the tragic tale of Pebbles the emotional support hamster, whose owner claimed she was forced to flush it down an airport toilet after an airline denied it a boarding pass last year.

The late Carrie Fisher with her emotional support dog Gary. Image: David M. Benett.

This glut of weird stories might sound like opportunistic passengers simply trying to bring their pets on to planes, but it isn’t necessarily the case. In the US, to have a creature qualify as an emotional support animal, you need to be able to produce a letter from a medical professional stating that you suffer from an emotional disability and that your animal companion qualifies as a vital part of your wellbeing. Once you have the letter, you not only get to take your pet on flights, but if you have a landlord they are also required to make reasonable accommodations for it at your home. However, as one ESA website is careful to note, ‘You may be denied housing if your ESA is extremely large, as in a horse or llama’.

It’s worth pointing out the distinction between an emotional support animal and a service animal. The latter is able to fulfil a specific task – for example, a guide dog, or a dog trained to respond to seizures – while the former is slightly harder to quantify. Animals can be enormously beneficial to those in emotional distress. Controlled clinical tests over the years have shown that human-animal relationships can increase socialisation in the depressed, decrease aggression in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and improve attention in those with Alzheimer’s.

Ariana Grande with Toulouse, who has helped her tackle her anxiety. She also has an emotional support pig. Image: MOSA/BACKGRID UK/Instagram/@arianagrande.

I’ve visited mental health in-patient facilities and witnessed first-hand the soothing wave that ripples through a ward whenever a dog comes to visit. But there’s a huge gulf between a treat for hospital patients and everyone dragging their own puppy into a pressurised aircraft cabin to stop them from feeling worried. And that might explain the UK’s reticence to adopt the US policy.

There are many possible reasons why emotional support animals have yet to catch on in Britain. The first, and most likely to be trumpeted by the usual procession of world gone-mad doomsayers, is that it simply isn’t British – you can almost hear Piers Morgan declaiming that we don’t need support animals because we’ve already got stiff upper lips. Wellington didn’t have an emotional support kitten when he triumphed over Napoleon, did he? If you consult the Bayeux Tapestry, you won’t find King Harold clutching an embroidered emotional support badger as an arrow takes his eye out. Churchill might have struggled with the ‘black dog’ of depression, but he didn’t need a doctor to write him a special note so it could sit next to him on a plane.

There’s also the fact that our healthcare system makes it much harder to cheat. In the US, where it’s absurdly easy to find a doctor unscrupulous enough to charge a couple of hundred dollars to bump up the symptoms of an emotional disorder, the problem of fraudulently obtained emotional support animals is thought to be widespread, but try doing that on the NHS. It’s hard enough getting a doctor’s appointment when there’s an actual emergency, so I dread to consider the shortness of shrift you’d encounter if you took up some of your GP’s precious time trying to persuade them that you really do need to take your hedgehog on holiday.

Then there are the practical considerations – say you’ve got an emotional support dog and a dog-allergic passenger on the same flight; who gets preference? And the fact that those with badly behaved emotional support animals are causing prejudice against disabled people with service animals… It’s murky water to wade into.

But the petition is awfully persuasive. Its creator very much does not want to simply sit next to a pony on a plane. ‘Engaging with various treatments such as in-patient or crisis support may not end up being particularly successful,’ they write. ‘What a lot of people really need is just a companion, something they can love, take care of and look after, something that will always be there for them when they need it most.’

‘There are so many people just like me who rely on their pets for their emotional wellbeing,’ the petition explains. ‘At the moment, these pets are not recognised. They cannot live in non-pet housing or travel as freely as registered assistance animals, as well as many other things that a registered assistance pet would be able to do.’

And that makes much more sense. Proper, sensibly accredited certification for animals who offer unconditional support for those who truly need it is a pretty good idea. And, in all likelihood, an economical one. Think of how much it costs to treat mental illness in the UK: £34 billion annually. If even a fraction of that figure could be saved by letting people have a dog with them, then the notion of emotional support animals starts to sound much less silly.

The UK probably won’t get them for a long time yet, but petitions like this are doing an awful lot to further the cause. Emotional support animals are a good thing. They deserve to be introduced here.

Although I reserve the right to change my mind if I’m ever stuck on a long-haul flight in the middle seat between a turkey and a pot-bellied pig…