Emotional Support Animals

The cartoon Peanuts had a character named Linus who was often depicted as dependent on his security blanket. Today, Linus would be more likely to have an emotional-support animal constantly at his side. They seem to be everywhere, and also appear to represent a trend in society to treat our young people like sniveling, helpless, dependent creatures.

Consider these real-life examples: Parents of an entering freshman asked the university to give their daughter a single room because she was not emotionally ready to live with a stranger. The school complied but charged them the higher single-room rate. The parents said their request was based on a disability, and threatened to sue because the higher charge was discriminatory and in violation of government regulations. Here’s another story: More and more first-year college students insist on bringing their emotional-support pet with them to live in the dorm. All sorts of problems can arise for other students, but there are those pesky government regulations about discrimination that face the institutions.

How do you feel about “emotional-support” (as opposed to “service”) animals? Does this concept have a solid empirical foundation in the discipline of psychology? In a coping context, are such animals good for you? The answer is “Yes” if you’re talking about psychological crutches. In the example above, for instance, one could argue that 18-year old kids who need Fido at their side to face the challenges of college should stay at home with mommy and daddy.

How about airplanes? Should passengers who suffer anxiety when flying be allowed to bring their emotional-support animal to help them cope? What if the animal is a snake, or a tarantula? How about a parrot or an iguana? At what point does the animal cross a line from emotional support for the owner to emotional discomfort for others in the vicinity?

In the context of this blog, needing to have an emotional support constantly by your side is simply an avoidance strategy that interferes with effective coping. Time and again, entries in this blog argue that trying to avoid the stress in your life is a poor way to cope. Remember, avoidance actions are based on stress, which comes from fear and anxiety. If you develop a pattern of avoiding your fears and anxieties you will be consumed by stress, become helpless, and increase your risk of depression.

When it comes to coping, instead of seeking ways to manage (which is trying to reduce or avoid entirely) your stress, you should seek to be empowered by the stress of challenges facing you. You must accept challenges that you can realistically confront with actions under your control. You can turn short-term stress into long-term positive outcomes. Stress cannot and should not be avoided so make the best of it. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

There’s no secret to maximizing your physical and emotional health. These states evolve and emerge from those parts of your life that are under your control: the actions you perform, the thoughts you maintain, and the perceptions and interpretations you make about events and people around you. A sense of coherence and purpose to life, and the confidence to meet the challenges of life, evolve from these lifestyles.

There are no anti-depressant or anti-anxiety drugs, or any other type of prescription or recreational substance, that will have such positive, long-term psychological consequences. And that goes for animals, too. Of course, you may have a pet you love and that brings you comfort and security. But when you believe that you cannot venture forth into life without that pet, then you enter a world of avoidance, passive dependency, and psychological weakness.


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