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The Problem With Saying 'Get the Poodle Instead of the Prozac'

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Emotional support animals have risen in popularity in recent years. Unlike service animals who are defined under the ADA as performing specific tasks for their handlers, emotional support animals provide emotional comfort and companionship for their owners. And unlike service animals which are restricted in many places, such as being limited to dogs, horses and capuchin monkeys in the United States, virtually any animal that you can legally own where you live can often be registered as an emotional support animal. Though emotional support animals have more restrictions than traditional service animals, having your animal registered as an emotional support animal also comes with many benefits, including being allowed animals in housing where they would otherwise be prohibited. 

With an estimated one in five people diagnosed with a mental illness in their lifetime, many people are exploring any treatment they can find that may seem beneficial, causing a marked increase in emotional support animals. Having an emotional support animal is beneficial not only for companionship, but also physical and mental well-being. Having one helps provide both structure and exercise, as well as a greater sense of purpose. Many doctors have even begun to recommend emotional support animals as part of a treatment plan for those struggling with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, especially seniors and those with a tendency to isolate. 

Some, however, have pushed that envelope even further. In an article by The Hollywood Reporter on pet adoptions surging in Los Angeles, one expert states that people could, “Get the poodle instead of the Prozac,” because “pets help reduce stress and anxiety, and help us cope with loss.” When the article was shared on Twitter — featuring the line about Provac — people rightfully pushed back, calling the story ableist. 

While I appreciate this “expert’s” fervent desire to find homes for more pets in need, combined with his understanding that having a companion animal can be both mentally and physically beneficial, I think it is downright dangerous to even imply that a pet can be an adequate substitute for any doctor prescribed medication. 

I have struggled throughout my life with my mental health, having been diagnosed with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I have often been under the care of a psychiatrist who has prescribed mental health medications to help stabilize my moods. I have also owned emotional support animals that were registered with my doctor. Both were beneficial, but in different ways. Neither could be a substitute for the other.

There is a dangerous theme running throughout society today where people who do not fully understand what it is like to live with a mental illness make suggestions they believe to be helpful but that, in reality, are detrimental to any structured treatment plan. Again and again, I’ve heard people suggest depression could be cured if people just tried to be happier and anxiety could be handled simply by not worrying so much about things. Likewise, people suggest that instead of seeing a doctor for their mental health, all a person needs is a pair of running shoes or a good yoga class. Suggesting a pet could replace actual medical treatment is no different. If a person is being prescribed medication under a doctor’s care, what that medication provides that patient can not be so simply replaced by adopting an animal for companionship. All medical conditions must be taken equally seriously, whether they affect the body or the mind. 

Please don’t get me wrong. I am not discouraging getting an emotional support animal. I have had two registered with my doctors for the last five years and they have been greatly beneficial to my life. But I also know that, as wonderful an addition as they have been, they would never be a panacea for all that ails me. A medical diagnosis needs medical treatment. You can add an emotional support animal to your mental health toolbox as yet another thing to help you cope during stressful times, much like you would meditation or conscious breathing, but there is no substitution when it comes to any medical condition than proper medical care by a trained professional.

Originally published: January 26, 2021
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