The Other Therapy Animals

Dogs are undoubtedly the most common of therapy animals, followed by cats.  But they are certainly not the only ones.  Species that might not occur to the average person are being recruited more and more often. Take Shelly the tortoise, abandoned by an owner, who was rescued off the side of the road and now amuses and inspires the residents of a Florida nursing home, and brings a sense of comfort and normalcy to visiting grandchildren.images (4)

“He’s calm and he’s slow, so it gives residents more time to interact. They can go out and touch him, pet him — he loves to have his neck scratched. The slower pace of the tortoise is more conducive to being therapeutic in this setting,” states Brandy Meredith, a therapist at the center. “One of my favorite things is how he helps youngsters who come in to see their grandparents. Sometimes, it can be intimidating here because of the wheelchairs and the nature of long-term care can be overwhelming when you first walk through the doors. Shelly takes the edge off.”

It is possible that Shelly will be with the home through the end of the century. With the long lifespan of tortoises, that just may be possible.

Then there’s rats, which are enjoying a dramatic increase in popularity as emotional support animals. An emotional support rat isn’t the type of pet that will want to spend its entire day hiding out in a cage. They are extremely social just naturally, and they seem to love spending time with their human companions. Their human companions cite their loving natures as the balm that helps alleviate feelings of loneliness, and they always seem to know how to bring a smile to someone’s face. Their intelligence and social nature also mean that they love to play, explore and just generally do funny and charming things. Learning tricks, solving puzzles, playing with toys, and completing obstacle courses are just a few of a pet rat’s favorite pastimes.  They seem to be particularly effective for people who suffer from anxiety or depression.

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Claire from the UK who has suffered from depression says “I learned very quickly that the love and time you invest into rats is returned ten times over. Chadwick and Hotch very quickly became the light in my life. Each and every milestone, whether it be a trick or just an affectionate kiss, was enough to make my heart swell. The fact that these little creatures truly seemed to love me in such an unconditional way as you would expect from a dog was the greatest serotonin kick I could ask for. I was finally starting to experience a difference in how I was feeling, and I was not the only who noticed this change in me.”

Reptiles are coming into their own as comfort animals as well.  A Texas teen who suffered from trauma-induced anxiety so severe she seldom left her house can now go to the movies and the mall if she takes her trusty Bearded Dragon, Chief.  Megan reports that Chief loves people and does a little happy dance when folks come up to her.  She never gets nervous or grabby when asked to be held by a stranger for a selfie. Megan’s parents report a tremendous change in her ability to cope and in her self-confidence.

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Megan and Chief, with Megan wearing her ESA tag, courtesy of Waco Today

These emotional support animals receive various degrees of toleration from managers of public spaces and businesses such as grocery stores and clinic.  In the US, only specially trained dogs and miniature horses may be classified as service animals, with the access to public places and businesses that this status legal permits.  ESA companions have only the right to access flights and housing when accompanied by a legitimate letter issued by a physician for a registered animal.

The website ESA Doctors states that “The rules are very clear when it comes to this question. In order to get a valid emotional support animal letter, it needs to come from a licensed mental health professional. Licensed mental health professionals include psychiatrists, psychologists, licensed clinical social workers, psychiatric nurses, licensed professional counselors, and other licensed therapists. If you get your letter or license from a non-licensed individual, you might as well flush it down the drain as airlines or housing facilities will not recognize it….The rights that an emotional support animal has come from an emotional support animal letter. Once you get the letter, you can have your pet live with you even in housing situations that otherwise don’t allow pets. In addition, your pet will be able to fly with you in the cabin of an airplane with no additional cost. Once this happens, your pet is now an emotional support animal.

This is all great news. However, what’s not so good is the fact that there are some people who try to take advantage of unsuspecting animal lovers. There are many websites that claim to offer legitimate emotional support animal registrations, but most of these websites only provide documents that are not recognized by landlords or airlines. Although these ESA registration documents may not be recognized without having an ESA letter on hand, they may come in handy when used in addition to your ESA letter to identify your ESA.

UPDATE!  In December 2018, Delta Airlines changed its support and service animal policy in response to an attack on another passenger by a 50 lb. service dog.  Because of the rapid rise in service and support animal requests that all airlines are experiencing in response to pressure from advocacy groups for people with disabilities on one side and dissatisfied customers with allergies and phobias on the other side, this is a very dynamic and volatile situation that will be in constant flux for the next few years.  If you are planning to fly with an ESA, absolutely check with the airline first and be very clear on any sunset dates or grandfathering that affect you.  Don’t get stuck between getting kicked off the plane or refused boarding, or having your ESA housed in the cargo hold. 

I did a quick check and sure enough, there are plenty of people out there willing to take anywhere from $29 to $79 from the unsuspecting for the privilege of sending you a worthless letter.  If you already have an animal that you believe would benefit you as a public companion, or you plan on acquiring one, it is best to have a chat with your physician first.  More and more GPs and therapists are familiar with protocols for identifying a legitimate need for a companion animal the accompanies the patient wherever they go.  So far, it is really up to the doctor’s discretion, but when they are convinced, they will write a compelling letter that will stand up to the scrutiny of airlines and landlords.

So whether it’s a hedgehog or a hamster, a rat or a rabbit, a snake or a salamander, the human-animal bond still functions for the healing of the human spirit. And wouldn’t you know it, someone has actually tested this.  Study participants that were stressed by being told (falsely) that they would be asked to hold a tarantula were equally calmed by stroking either a live rabbit or a tortoise.  Participants given a stuffed animal plush toy to stroke stayed amped and anxious. So it’s not the texture of an object that soothes us, but rather the living presence.

I personally hope more people make the move toward legitimizing their pets as ESA, and are able to take them places besides Petco, Petsmart, and the public park.  It has been shown that people walking dogs in their neighborhood promotes feelings of safety and respectability for others, even in somewhat sketchy areas. Imagine a world where people could walk proudly anywhere with their dragon on their shoulder.  I know I like the idea.

Please note that when you purchase any animal product through this blog, the entire commission earned by this purchase is dedicated to an animal rescue. For more information on this rescue go to RACEB.

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