I’m a wife and mother first and a veterinarian second. Sometimes in life all these aspects can come together for the betterment, I hope, of my family and friends.
Such an occurrence happened recently when my oldest, a new college freshman away at school, said she and her friends at school were all lonely for their home animals. Not wanting to mail our cats or the gerbils (Mario and Romeo) to campus, I readily reached out to her school and to a few local dog therapy groups in her area to see if a therapy visit was possible for the students on campus. I think it will be a little tricky with the restrictions because of the pandemic, but I believe it can be worked out. They are all so excited.
I believe this is an example of the human-animal bond at work. The American Veterinary Medical Association defines the human-animal bond as a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that is influenced by behaviors considered essential to the health and well-being of both. The bond can be an emotional bond, a psychological bond and/or a bond that is based on physical interactions of animals and people in their environment. My role as a veterinarian is to maximize the potential of these bonds by supporting the health and well-being of both humans and their animals. There you go! I’m working this!
We have all seen how animals can help people. Many pets reduce anxiety and stress. Some are able to reduce blood pressure to promote a healthy heart. Still, other dogs support and aid children with autism and veterans with PTSD. Lastly, there are pets, dogs usually, that help their people function daily like seeing-eye dogs and seizure alert dogs.
The AVMA thought it appropriate to classify all these types of assistance animals into different categories based on the functions they perform for their people. In classifying them this way, the animals and their people are afforded certain freedoms to move around and interact with society at large.
The first category is a service animal. This is a dog or miniature horse (this is a true statement) trained to assist just one person with their disability. These animals can go into any public place with their person and live where there is a “no pet” policy. They fly for free with their owners and are recognized under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). They are rigorously trained to withstand a variety of environments, experiences and people. These are your seeing-eye dogs and wheelchair assistants.
The second category is called an emotional support animal. These include a variety of animals that provide emotional support through companionship. The most important fact about this group of assistance animals is that their title of emotional support must be 100% supported by a letter from a licensed human health professional. They, different from service dogs, are not allowed to go with their owner into all public places. They are not able to tolerate a variety of environments, people and experiences and are not recognized by the ADA. They can live where there are no pets allowed and fly for free though. Not bad, I guess. In this category there is often some cases of fraud as people desperately want to keep their pets with them no matter the situation. Human health care providers need to stay on their toes here and not be too free with their letters.
Lastly there are therapy animals. This is what my college crew needed. Bingo! Therapy animals participate in structured activities that provide emotional support and comfort to people other than their owners. They are not recognized by the ADA. They cannot live where pets are not allowed or go into all public places. They must also pay for airfare if traveling with their owner. What they can do is to tolerate a variety of environments, experiences and people. And they do it well. These dogs visit firefighters on the front lines, law enforcement, schools, hospitals, shelters and hospice houses. Their sole purpose is to sit and take some of the problems away from a group of humans if only for a while. That’s the human-animal bond shining brightly.
So the next time you see an assistance animal out in public or living next to you I hope now you will understand them a little better and the assistance they are providing. If you need to learn more about these three types of animals please contact the AVMA or your veterinarian to get you moving in the right direction. This experience has absolutely taught me that if you love what you do, no amount of distance can keep you from showing that and so much more to the people you care about. Good luck!