The emotional-support animals of our everyday lives

For the purpose of comprehension, in this text, I’m calling animals the non-human ones. Also, I am not using emotional-support animals as the term designated by law and regulations. I find this expression interesting if regarded in a broader sense since researches have shown how bonding among humans and animals presents a strong emotional aspect, independently of specific psychological needs.

Greyhound (1912) by Moriz Jung

The first time I saw the expression emotional-support animal in a psychological context was from one of my students at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, during a class on Group Dynamics and Human Relationships. I had already read about Equine-therapy, especially for children in the autistic spectrum, and I was aware of the benefits of bonding with animals for them and also for neurotypical children. Many parents get pieces of advice from Mental Health Professionals or Educators about the advantages of adopting a pet for their children at some stage of their development. I had also learned about people recovering from addiction and parasuicide behaviours adopting animals in the process and learning how to take responsibility for others and improving responsibility for own-selves. But I’ve found it pretty interesting a student suggesting to work on emotional-support animals for her final assignment in a class on Human Relationships.

We were discussing at that class different group-therapies and groupworks for different types of clients. Students were interested in groupworks by psychodrama approach, cognitive-behaviour groups for eating disorders patients, T-groups in workplaces etc, and this specific student wanted to talk about her internship at an LTC facility in which a volunteer started to take sheltered cats and dogs to interact with a group of residents on a weekly basis. The psychologist at the facility developed a program for the residents with dementia and realized how their interaction with the pets improved their relationships in general. It seemed that their memories were stimulated from a very emotional trigger – their own relationships with animals during their childhood or adulthood before being institutionalized. Memory is glued with emotion.

Then, supervising that student gave me the opportunity to reflect on something that was already part of my observations as a therapist at the time. Many of my clients lived with animals at their homes. While some of them had adopted the animals themselves others had to cohabit with their parents, partners, siblings’ pets. Anyways, it became clearer for me how those sometimes almost forgotten presences required some degree of willingness from their human fellows. Willingness is an important therapeutic skill. It’s the ability to be open and responsive to reality. I could also observe how teenagers and young adults with high levels of emotional dysregulation were more prone to self-regulate when willing to respond to their pets’ needs. Although you cannot always predict your pet’s behaviours and needs, their variability is usually under the scope of your capacity to respond.

At the same time, the animals provided sensations and interactions that built daily stability for my clients. The relatively small amount but constant emotional stimuli from the relationship with their pets fostered the basis for emotional regulation and could help them to cope with disruptions. If it can be hard to express your emotions and feelings in words to another human being, for some reason, sometimes it seems so easy to be understood by a close dog, cat, horse, bird, etc. The relationship with animals has the potential to be very validating because you feel capable of taking care of them at the same time you can be understood on a deep level with no words. Among others, two aspects are crucial in our mental well-being: stability and adaptability, which form a basic dialectic duo. Animals can surely contribute to that.

Reference:

Fragoso Pereira, Mara Julia, Pereira, Luzinete, Lamano Ferreira, Maurício Os benefícios da Terapia Assistida por Animais: uma revisão bibliográfica. Saúde Coletiva [en linea]. 2007, 4(14), 62-66 https://www.redalyc.org/articulo.oa?id=84201407

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