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Bully For You!

Meet Sammi, our new emotional support dog who fills our hearts with joy.

Sammi is a six-month-old American Bully — a relatively new breed recognized by the United Kennel Club. She’s the newest member of my family, and an emotional support animal (ESA) as well. This time last year, in the August 2022 issue, Fayette County Lifestyle highlighted Tails of Hope - an organization that provides service dog training for disabled individuals, special needs children, wounded veterans, and first responders. Less than a year later, we see mental health data that highlights the growing need for another type of animal — the ESA.

More than 45% of U.S. households own dogs, and every dog owner knows there are many benefits to having a dog - from getting out for exercise to receiving loyal companionship, and lots of tail-waggin’ doggy-lovin’ in between. Research studies reveal that 74% of dog owners in the United States believe their mental health improved after getting a pet and that owning a dog has been proven to reduce the risk of heart disease by 36%.

Social interaction between people and their dogs releases powerful hormones such as oxytocin and serotonin that help us relax and lower our blood pressure. More than 85 million American families have pets and with such powerful research data, the number of individuals and families acquiring pets in the wake of COVID has skyrocketed. A recent Forbes Advisor survey found that in an overwhelming majority of pet owners, 78% acquired pets during the pandemic.

Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General, released an advisory report declaring loneliness a new public health epidemic in the United States. The findings show that loneliness is as bad as smoking and has profound effects on mental health, increasing the risks of heart disease, stroke, and dementia.

People struggling with mental illness have found that having an ESA decreases their anxiety and helps them fight feelings of loneliness. The surgeon general report indicates a decline in social connections—especially among young people—and shows that half of adults are lonely. The mental health benefits of having an ESA extend beyond the boost in feel-good hormones. ESAs have been found to reduce loneliness with their ability to respond to their owners intuitively.

The approval for an ESA can be requested for any type of animal, though it is most commonly a dog. There are online services that help people with mental health disorders get an ESA letter for their pet - a document with specific language that a therapist provides on their letterhead. Some common mental health conditions that qualify someone for an ESA are anxiety, depression, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, chronic stress, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

It's important to know that ESAs do not have the same access as service animals. There are places where ESA’s cannot go, like restaurants or malls as service animals can. Unlike service animals, ESAs do not require any training. Service animals are specially trained to perform a function to help their owners like leading a blind person or detecting seizures. Service animals may provide some emotional support as well, but they have been trained to perform other tasks that ESAs have not. Service animals are also fully protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) while ESAs are not.

Although she was acquired to support one member of my family, Sammi has had a profound effect on each member. Oxytocin and serotonin levels have hit an all-time high in our household. I’m not sure what we’ll do when this fur baby heads off to school with our youngest. Perhaps it will be time to get one of our own.

For more information, review full research reports from Psychology Today, SAGE Journals, Alliance of Therapy Pets, and the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute.