Do Emotional Support Animals Need Emotional Support?

What does science tell us about the welfare of emotional support animals?

In 2018, a peacock named Dexter spent several hours perched atop a pile of luggage while waiting for a seat on a United Airlines flight. Dexter’s owner claimed he was an Emotional Support Animal or ESA.

The photo of his “dilemma” went viral as most people viewed this as a humorous, albeit preposterous, set of circumstances. And even more recently, a Missouri woman is fighting the law so that she can keep three monkeys in her home as emotional support animals to help her with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

A wide range of animals can be registered as ESAs, including pigs, ducks, hamsters, ferrets, monkeys and lizards and there are any number of organizations providing ways to register one’s pet as an ESA. In 2003, the Department of Transportation updated its policy regarding animals in air transportation to say that “animals that assist persons with disabilities by providing emotional support” qualify as service animals. Therefore, many agencies lump ESAs into the same category as Service Animals (SAs). And the use of Emotional Support Animals has grown explosively over the past few years, with puppies and rabbits being used to calm the nerves of students taking tests and patients in medical waiting rooms as well as even customers in airports who are nervous about flying.

Unlike service animals, who are individually trained to perform a specific task for the benefit of an individual with a clear disability (like epileptic seizures and self-mutilating behaviors), emotional support animals are not required to have individual training for a specific task. They simply need to be there for “comfort.”

But while it may be comical and entertaining to see a pig or a lizard or a peacock in an airport or a capuchin monkey in diapers, the question one cannot avoid is “What are these animals doing there in the first place?” And from that, a wealth of welfare questions flow. Should an exotic animal be in an airport or a living room? Would any animal choose to be in that situation? Are there more humane ways for people to reduce anxiety?  Has this gone too far? And, what do ESAs tell us about our relationship with animals?

What does science tell us about the effectiveness of ESAs?

Let’s be clear: Scientific studies show that contact with animals can have nonspecific temporary and moderate effects on stress level, anxiety, depression, and blood pressure. But these same benefits can be achieved with other objects and interventions, such as a stuffed animal or a plant. The evidence says that a live animal is not needed for most situations, including animal-assisted therapy.

And there are clearly many other ways to achieve relaxation and reduce stress.  As the literature tells us, inanimate objects, blankets, conversation with another human being, cognitive-behavioral relaxation techniques and, yes, even medications, work.

Some may argue that while the effectiveness of a “generic” live animal for emotional support might be questionable, individuals who bring their ESAs on planes have a personal relationship with a specific individual animal and therefore the benefits are not objectively measurable. But what does it mean to say that one “needs” to have a pet along for the ride?

More to the point: How symmetrical is the relationship between an ESA and a human who claims to need him or her? While it may be all well and good for someone to feel more comfortable flying with their bird, the fact that the bird has apparently no opportunity to exercise his or her autonomy in the situation belies claims that the relationship is a mutually satisfying one.

Most emotional support animals are dogs (and some cats) and are therefore domesticated animals who co-evolved in the company of humans. From a welfare perspective, there are no circumstances under which one could argue that other kinds of animals – e.g., lizards, birds, pigs, or horses – would be better off on a plane or in an airline terminal than in a natural setting suited to the animal’s adaptive nature and needs. It is inarguable that it is much more difficult to meet the needs of wild animals in any captive situation than a dog or cat. Watching the videos of the woman with the three monkeys, one can see numerous manifestations of extreme stress on the part of the monkeys: yawning, pacing, thumb-sucking, etc. Non-domesticated animals are spectacularly unsuited to being ESAs.

So, the welfare issues for dogs as emotional support animals may not be as extreme as those for wild animals, who have not evolved to be in a close interdependent relationship with humans, let alone flying through the air at 36,000 feet in cramped quarters! But one can legitimately ask whether even dogs who are used as Emotional Support Animals are adversely affected by the demands made upon them.  While there is much attention given to how animals are useful to humans, there is very little attention given to the issue of “support”, “service” and “therapy” animal welfare from the animal’s point of view.

The long history of co-evolution between dogs and humans has ensured that dogs are highly receptive to our emotions and often absorb them. Therefore, it is concerning that there is growing evidence that negative human emotional states can produce a matching emotional state in dogs. One study using measures of the stress hormone cortisol as a proxy for anxiety level showed that anxious and nervous dog owners seem to have tense and nervous dogs. Also, in this study, the dog owners who scored high in neuroticism on personality tests had dogs who were less able to modulate pressure and stress than owners who scored lower on neuroticism. Another study showed that long term stress levels are synchronized in dogs and their owners.

Therefore, it is not an unreasonable concern to think that if an anxious person has a dog as an emotional support animal, the dog may be in jeopardy of being made anxious in this role. And it would also not be unreasonable to find that other emotional states, such as depression, may “flow down the leash” as well. Of course, everyone gets anxious and depressed at times, but the fact that these animals are forced to be in close contact with someone precisely because they are emotionally unstable gives one pause. One might ask at what point do the emotional support animals need emotional support themselves?

Animals as Objects

What does the use of animals as ESAs tell us about our relationship with them? This is not to imply that owners of ESAs do not have affection and concern for their animals, even exotic pets. These situations are multi-dimensional. But once other animals are given a label and constricted into a role, then the relationship moves from one of companionship into the very troubling territory of instrumentalism. They are objectified and vulnerable to exploitation—as tools, resources, entertainers, models of disease, and even healers—and the needs of the animals recede into the background against the self-interested exertions of our own species.  Conveniently, objects don’t have feelings and do not require emotional support.

So, in answer to the question of whether the use of Emotional Support Animals reflects our continued lack of recognition that animals have their own emotional needs, I suggest the answer is yes. As the neighbor of the Missouri woman said when he was interviewed about her ESA monkeys: “These are wild animals. They belong in a zoo.”

* Marino, L. (2012). Construct validity of animal-assisted therapy and activities: How important is the animal in AAT?. Anthrozoös, 25(sup1), s139-s151
* Schöberl, I., Wedl, M., Beetz, A., & Kotrschal, K. (2017). Psychobiological factors affecting cortisol variability in human-dog dyads. PloS One, 12(2), e0170707.
* Sundman, A. S., Van Poucke, E., Holm, A. C. S., Faresjö, Å., Theodorsson, E., Jensen, P., & Roth, L. S. (2019). Long-term stress levels are synchronized in dogs and their owners. Scientific reports, 9(1), 7391.

Service and Support Dogs: Welfarism versus Rights

Do we have a right to keep dogs and other animals in service for physical and emotional support? It’s a question that came to the fore in my mind at a conference at the Institute for Human-Animal Connection at University of Denver.

The theme of the meeting was “Illuminating neurodiversity in human-animal relationships,” and my own presentation was on Dolphin and Whale Brains: A Challenge for Primate-Centered Views of Intelligence.

But what took my attention most was the number of service dogs who were present.

The audience of over 500 people consisted mainly of social workers, therapists and individuals in the autism spectrum disorder community, many of whom had support dogs in harnesses by their side. The dogs were “working” and therefore couldn’t engage in petting, play or other natural activities. Instead, they each remained at the side of their “handler” and looked for any treats that might come from obeying and performing the trained tasks. Some whined and begged to go elsewhere.
The dogs’ lives were so limited by their service that they were actively being prevented from thriving.
It was difficult to ignore the inequities of such a relationship. And as the two days wore on, I began to question whether the dogs’ lives were so limited by their service that they were actively being prevented from thriving.

I was particularly struck by a presentation given by veterinarian Zenithson Ng, who talked about how anxiety and other emotional problems can be identified in support and assistance dogs and how these problems can be mitigated. He emphasized the serious responsibility handlers and family members have for attending to the welfare of the dogs. Certainly, no one in the audience could disagree that these dogs need the best care available.

But there is a fundamental premise that separates my views from those of Dr. Ng and many other people who were at the conference. I simply cannot accept that it is ethical to use nonhuman animals in this way.

The issue comes down to the longstanding welfare versus rights debate. Welfarism allows for the use of other animals to benefit humans – be it for research, food, entertainment, emotional support or whatever – while treating them kindly within the bounds of their function. Welfarism offers protections for those animals to the extent that the interests of the animals do not interfere with those of the humans. The needs and desires of the nonhuman animal take a back seat to those of the human.

A rights-based approach, on the other hand, recognizes the fundamental value and inherent entitlements of our fellow animals to have the opportunity to thrive outside of their use as a means to an end.

Service dogs and assistance dogs perform several physical and emotional tasks for the handler that can be helpful. And both dogs and people can gain from this kind of relationship. But there is real reason to doubt that they all do or that all the elements of this relationship are ethical.

I left the conference wondering whether many of the psychological tasks the dogs were charged with were either unnecessary at best, or actively hindering the emotional development of both dog and handler at worst.
There is real reason to doubt that all the elements of this relationship are ethical.
In my own field of expertise, which is to do with intelligence and self-awareness in dolphins and other cetaceans, I’ve seen the negative consequences of their use, not only as entertainment in marine parks, but also in so-called “dolphin-assisted therapy” programs for people, especially children, with autism. I have seen great damage done to both the cetaceans and the humans by this form of exploitation and in the perpetuation of the idea that other animals exist to meet our needs.

And my peer-reviewed scientific studies show that, while not exactly the same as employing service animals, animal-assisted therapies in general produce, at most, nonspecific and moderate effects which can be reproduced by objects and interventions other than live animals.

The more I learn and experience about the use of other animals in therapeutic and supportive contexts, the less comfortable I am with the ethics and the benefit of the entire enterprise.

Dolphin Welfare vs. Dolphin Rights at the American Cetacean Society Conference

Is it appropriate to keep dolphins (including belugas and killer whales) in captivity as long as you accord them certain approved standards of care? Or do dolphins have the inherent right not to be held captive by humans in the first place?

It’s a question that hovered in the air at last weekend’s meeting of the American Cetacean Society in San Diego. And at one session, it came right to the surface and took center stage.

The welfare-vs.-rights debate suffuses the whole animal protection movement. In relation to farm animals, welfarists work to get better conditions for farm animals, specifically in factory farms; while animal rights proponents denounce welfarism, insisting that the only moral course is to abolish factory farming – and, indeed, all use of animals as food for humans.

Welfarists argue that the abolitionist approach is impractical and that any improvement is better than none. Abolitionists reply that this is like arguing for better conditions for slaves, and that welfarism simply keeps the whole sordid business going.

In the companion animal area, welfarists work to “euthanize” homeless pets humanely rather than in gas chambers, while no-kill advocates say that humane societies and shelters should simply never be in the business of killing homeless pets.

In every area – vivisection, wildlife management, zoos and other entertainment – the issue keeps rearing its head. And last weekend’s annual conference of the American Cetacean Society was no exception. Over and over, the question was: Do we have the right to treat intelligent marine mammals as subjects for research and other kinds of exploitation?

Are they “stocks” or are they individuals?

One of the key laws that governs our relationship to dolphins and whales is the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). It is classic animal welfarism, and it has made a big difference for the animals.

Today, 40 years later, many people say the MMPA is out of date. And this became clear in the very first session of the conference, when Barbara Taylor, a member of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, took stock of how the law is working for marine mammals today.

While the act brought an end to many kinds of abuses – like hundreds of thousands of dolphins being caught and drowned in tuna nets (368,600 in 1972 alone) – new threats to the animals have emerged. Climate change, military and commercial sonar, and complaints from the fishing industry have grown and are all taking their toll on marine mammals. And it isn’t clear that the MMPA can deal effectively with these issues.

Dingell’s language shows the extent to which marine mammals were viewed as resources, stocks and species – not individuals in their own right.

When he was working to push the bill through Congress in 1971, Rep. John Dingell famously said: “Once destroyed, biological capital cannot be recreated.” That’s true, and Dingell deserves great praise for his work. But his language shows the extent to which marine mammals were viewed as resources, stocks and species – not individuals in their own right.

That’s still the case. And in this and other presentations, whales and dolphins were being referred to as “stocks” and resources, with the focus on how many of them we can kill while still ensuring that the species is “sustainable.”

This view of the lives of whales and dolphins is very different from those who take the position that these animals are individuals, not stocks, and that it is simply wrong to be treating them primarily as resources.

Variations on the same issue came up all through the conference. But the whole issue blew into high gear on Saturday afternoon in the session entitled “The Question of Personhood.”

The question of personhood

What is a “person”? And are dolphins and whales persons? At this session, Tom White, professor of business ethics at Loyola Marymount University and author of In Defense of Dolphins, reminded us of the distinction between a “human”, which describes your biological identity, and a “person”, which describes your moral and legal place in the world.

White explained persons as being individuals who are alive and aware, who have emotions and a sense of themselves and their own existence, who can control their own behavior, recognize other persons and treat them appropriately, and who have a variety of sophisticated cognitive abilities.

Rights are the same as needs – you have the right, as a person, to a life that fulfills your basic needs as a member of your species.

Once you understand what constitutes a person, he said, it’s easy to recognize what their “rights” are. Basically, rights are the same as needs – you have the right, as a person, to a life that fulfills your basic needs as a member of your species.

Dolphin rights, he noted, are clearly not the same as human rights. Dolphins don’t need to drive a car or have equal pay for equal work. They have different needs. For example, as beings whose identity and individuality are intricately bound up with their social group, they have the need, and therefore the right, to live their lives with that group. And that means they have the right not to be held captive.

Lori Marino of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy offered four simple arguments for why cetacean captivity is both a moral and scientific dead end:

  1. Cetaceans possess all the characteristics of personhood, which, ironically, makes them especially vulnerable to being harmed by captivity.
  2. The scientific data show unequivocally that they cannot thrive in captivity. Instead, they suffer stress, become aggressive, self-mutilate, and die early.
  3. Little of any value is currently being learned about cetacean cognition, behavior and intelligence from captive research. By contrast, field studies of wild dolphins are producing fascinating discoveries about cetacean behavior and intelligence.
  4. And the captivity industry is tied to the infamous dolphin and whale drive hunts, at which certain animals are pulled from the slaughter and sent to marine parks around the world.

The third member of the panel was Diana Reiss, a cognitive psychologist who conducts research on captive dolphins at Hunter College, the National Aquarium and the National Zoo, and is the author of The Dolphin in the Mirror. Dr. Reiss focused her talk on the argument that we should all be working together to bring an end to the drive hunts and slaughters. But this was something of a straw man since no one present would dispute that. And when it came to the question of the value of captive research, her examples were from 10 and even 30 years ago, which was not lost on the audience at question time.

Reiss and Marino exchanged strong opposing views during the panel session. And so, the Saturday session came to an end with the clear distinction being made between those who see dolphins and whales as stocks, resources and property, and those who see them as individuals with rights and needs.

Empathy in Nonhuman Animals

On Sunday morning, we heard a fascinating talk by Frans de Waal, the famous primatologist whose books include Chimpanzee Politics and The Age of Empathy. While most of his research has been on apes, monkeys and elephants, he said that much of it could also be applied to cetaceans.

De Waal showed a series of videos demonstrating empathy in nonhumans – for example, how one great ape will console another; how chimpanzees and bonobos reconcile after an argument; how elephants cooperate to solve a problem (even if this means giving up getting a larger share of the reward); and how capuchin monkeys have a sense of fairness and will rebel if they feel they’re being treated unfairly.

But however fascinating and insightful de Waal’s research surely is, he cannot bring himself to take the next step that’s dictated so obviously by his own research: that the insights we’ve gathered from all this painstaking research is that most, if not all, of the animals who have provided it are self-aware beings who have demonstrated that they do not belong in captivity. And while many scientists, like Marino, have either abandoned captive research or, like Denise Herzing, conduct their work with wild dolphins, de Waal and Reiss have yet to take that step.

De Waal defended his position by saying: “I don’t believe that chimps are moral beings. But they have elements of human morality.” Many in the audience said that his research demonstrated to them how very clearly they are indeed moral beings.

Where now?

Just as it took a long time for the Western world to agree that all humans are persons in the legal as well as moral sense of the term, so it will take time for us to agree that many other animals must be recognized as persons with rights appropriate to their species.

This year’s conference of the American Cetacean Society showed how fully this issue has come to the fore – and that the fields of science, ethics and policy are now pointing clearly in the same direction: We cannot continue to treat whales and dolphins simply as stocks, resources and species; they are individuals and persons in their own right.