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Everything you need to know about emotional support animals

With the pace of the semester finally kicking in and midterms looming in the near future, I’ve been stressed. Haven’t we all? This week, I ran into West Chester University’s favorite St. Bernard pair in the Sykes Student Union. I couldn’t help but smile while running my fingers through their fluffy fur and scratching behind their ears.

How does petting those four-legged furry friends make us humans so darn happy? Well, it’s the increase of serotonin and dopamine, which are hormones that allow your body to relax. Studies have shown that interacting with animals makes the brain release these hormones, which might be why there has been a rise in the number of emotional support animals registered all over the country.

An emotional support animal is defined by its function: to provide emotional support to its owner in the home and thusly, overrides any no-pets policy an establishment might have. Emotional support animals are also permitted to travel  on planeswith their owners as long as the proper documentation is provided to the airline, but otherwise are not required to be trained.

With that being said, an emotional support animal is actually not classified as a service animal; service animals are defined by their individual training to aid people with disabilities—such as Seeing Eye dogs that are trained to guide a blind person or Seizure Response dogs that are trained to activate a life alert system in case of an emergency.

Emotional support animals are not considered therapy animals either. Therapy animals must be trained to practice restraint in situations that might be stressful or overwhelming to untrained animals, like running after things that fall on the floor. In a hospital setting—which therapy animals regularly visit—with pills and needles constantly having the potential to be dropped, it’s important that restraint is practiced.

Animals chosen to be therapy animals—most commonly, dogs—are the kind to be friendly with humans and other animals; they can’t be touch or sound sensitive and they have to do well with being handled.

To own an emotional support animal, a mental health professional must write a letter stating that an animal is necessary to alleviate a recognized psychiatric disorder in the patient. Oftentimes, hopeful emotional support animal owners are scammed into paying for a phony certificate that doesn’t officially allow the animal to be registered. If you’re thinking of adopting one, talk to your regular psychologist or psychiatrist.

I began discussing how wonderful dogs are, but the choices aren’t limited to dogs. Any animal can be registered as an emotional support animal: cats, dogs, rabbits, fish, birds and the list goes on! Each species has its own advantages and disadvantages and there are a number of ways that animals can help humans.

Walking a dog encourages exercise in the owner; exercising burns off cortisol, which causes the body stress, and releases endorphins, which are a mix of feel-good hormones that causes the body euphoria.

Dogs require a strict schedule which includes a regular eating time, a daily walk and frequent bathroom opportunities to avoid accidents in the house. Creating a schedule around a dog forces the owner to develop structure and organization in their own schedule. Those skills can translate to other areas of their life.

Dogs encourage socialization—especially in public. When do you NOT stop to pet a dog? Taking dogs on walks allows owners to interact with strangers and make friends they’d otherwise wouldn’t, which is a great push to overcome social anxiety.

Cats have a strong appeal to the introvert because cats don’t require  much doting. They’re low-maintenance because they love on their terms and pretty easy to house train with a simple litterbox.

Cats are still just as soft and warm as dogs. Owners will reap the benefits of serotonin and dopamine release when giving either a pet or a nice neck scratch.

Being prey animals, rabbits are incredibly docile. They are as easily house-trained with a litterbox and are even capable of free-roaming the house just like cats or dogs. They do well in low-energy environments, where loud noises don’t occur.

Rabbits are required to eat loads of veggies, which encourages healthy eating in their owner. If the rabbit needs veggies anyway, the owner might choose to snack on some as well. The soft fur of rabbits facilitates the same serotonin and dopamine release that both cats and dogs do.

Fish are probably the most misunderstood pets because their selling point is being low-maintenance: feed them in the morning and again at night. However, it’s so important that fish tanks are cleaned regularly, pH is monitored and the water is kept at a temperature optimal for the type of fish. Fish can easily become sick because of improper tank care. Although, it is so relaxing to watch them swim.

If you’re willing to put in the work, it’s possible to make a home for any of these animals in your life. Having an animal depend on you certainly places a responsibility on you, but the end justifies the means. It is possible that you’ll have a loyal companion by your side for years and, not to mention, a healthier, happier life.

Kirsten Magas is a third-year student majoring in English with minors in Biology and Creative Writing.   KM867219@wcupa.edu

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