How pets help owners: the importance of emotional support animals

A dog is held by its owner to smell hibiscus in bloom. - Photo courtesy Vanita Balchan
A dog is held by its owner to smell hibiscus in bloom. - Photo courtesy Vanita Balchan

For centuries, dogs have been described as man's best friends for the animal's unwavering loyalty, friendship, companionship and of course protection.

And research by scientists has shown the simple act of petting a dog can lower a person's stress hormone cortisol and increase levels of oxytocin, otherwise known as the love hormone, creating an unbreakable bond between human and animal, similar to the bond shared by mothers and their babies.

Nowadays, people have found companionship in a variety of pets, be it a snake, tortoise, hamster or chicken.

Last week, Sherris Khan, 25, of Cumuto shared her experience of someone stealing her pet chicken Peep and even offered a reward of $500 for its safe return.

Instead, Khan who found solace in her pet, which she considered an emotional support animal, faced a barrage of insults, ridicule and unwanted proposals from people who responded to her plight. She is now worried about the fate and safety of her two other chickens, Browns and Springs, and hopes to raise funds to install security cameras to monitor them when she is away.

Khan, an only child, and loner said she considered her pet as her child which helped her cope after her prolonged battle with covid.

Peep, the pet chicken of Sherris Khan, perched on the sofa at her Cumuto home. -

Professor of psychiatry at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Dr Gerard Hutchinson said, "Emotional support animals have grown in significance over recent history, perhaps in the last ten years, in part because of increases in loneliness, reductions in social interaction (inter-personal) and rise in mental health issues such as anxiety and depressive disorders."

He said such animals "are extremely helpful also for people with disabilities."

"Domesticated animals are the most commonly used, dogs, cats, rabbits even, but they can be any animal which can be mobile. They are becoming more common in Trinidad but are not as widespread as they have become in the metropolitan world. Some people who are especially disposed to animals would get the most benefit but even when an individual is not into animals – the experience of having an emotional support animal can be beneficial. In some instances, the process is recommended particularly when the individual might have psychosocial issues and might live alone or have minimal social support."

Clinical psychologist Dr Katija Khan, who also lectures at UWI, shared Hutchinson's views in an e-mailed response.

She defined an emotional support animal, or comfort or companion animal, as "an animal that provides emotional support, comfort and companionship to their owner."

"While usually cats or dogs, emotional support animals can be of any species. Emotional support animals are pets and do not require any formal training and are distinguished from service animals who are primarily working animals, trained to perform certain tasks or take specific actions for their person. Many pet owners may describe an emotional connection to their pets and as such emotional support animals may be regarded similarly to pets, however, the specific term is more often used when the animal provides support and relief for particular psychological or psychiatric conditions. An emotional support animal may provide relief and support to persons with many mental health conditions including anxiety disorders (eg panic disorders, phobias, stress, post-traumatic stress disorder) and depressive disorders," Khan said.

A woman carries her dog as she walks along Frederick Street, Port of Spain. - PHOTO BY SUREASH CHOLAI

Khan, who owns two cats and a dog, said all pet owners benefit from the bond they share with their pets.

She said recent research by one of her psychology students Tanya Tokhai, which investigated pet ownership and life satisfaction, revealed pet owners who reported stronger bonds with their pets reported higher levels of well-being and owners with greater attachment to their pets showed higher levels of life satisfaction.

"In some countries (eg US), a formal letter from a licensed mental health provider confirming the condition or disability and need for the emotional support animal may be required in order to access housing and travel accommodations for the animal. TT does not define, require or provide registration of emotional support animals.

"The attachment between pet and owner can be similar to that between a parent and child. Losing a pet can be very distressing especially when the attachment bond is strong and can cause the owner to grieve similarly to losing a loved one. Owners may need to rely on other sources of support and comfort like family, friends, and other pets to help them cope throughout the process," Khan said.

Hollywood has often portrayed the important role of emotional support animals in films and local animal rights advocates have expressed empathy for people like Sherris Khan.

Earlier this year, Netflix released the drama film Penguin Bloom which was inspired by the true story of a woman who was critically injured while on vacation in Thailand and found strength and courage to emerge out of her depression after an injured baby magpie came into her life.

The film charts the bond between the once active woman, who was confined to a wheelchair, and the bird as she and her family coped through her recovery.


"How pets help owners: the importance of emotional support animals"

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