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Emotional support animals do benefit health, study shows

Therapy dog in bag stock photo
Pets that are certified as emotional support animals really do provide mental health benefits for their owners, a recent study found. (Source: Adobe Stock)

As more news stories have emerged about increasing numbers of animals – from dogs and cats to birds and miniature horses – being taken into airplanes, college dorms and other public spaces to provide “emotional support” to their owners, many people have come to view their use for this purpose as a potential fraud.

However, a team at the University of Toledo has published what its leader says is the first scientific evidence that emotional support animals do provide significant, measurable and ongoing benefits for people with mental health issues.

Researchers from the university’s College of Health and Human Services followed a group of people with diagnosed mental illness who were paired with a shelter dog or cat, measuring their levels of depression, anxiety and loneliness via surveys both prior to adopting the animals and again at the end of a 12-month period. In the second survey, they found statistically significant improvements in all three measurements of participants’ mental health.

The researchers also measured consistently lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol after participants interacted with their animals, along with higher amounts of a “bonding hormone” called oxytocin.

Although the study was small, its leader, Dr. Janet Hoy-Gerlach, said it could serve as a major step toward demonstrating the value of emotional support animals for human health.

“The human-animal bond is an underutilized resource for both human and animal well-being…We have seen a significant increase in social isolation because of COVID-19, particularly among those most vulnerable to its effects,” Hoy-Gerlach said. “While our research was initiated before the pandemic, the findings couldn’t be more applicable. Now more than ever, we need to be thinking about leveraging every resource at our disposal.”

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