Friday, April 12, 2024

Emotional support animals provide companionship, comfort to students

March 1, 2024
Fifth-year Alice Finlan dresses her cat, Birch, in a printed collared shirt.
Fifth-year Alice Finlan dresses her cat, Birch, in a printed collared shirt. —
Photo by Vivian Barrett | The State News

Although they don’t go through formal training and certification, emotional support animals can be life-changing for their owners. Whether it is preventing or helping improve existing symptoms, emotional support animals often provide a connection that boosts an individual’s mental health.

Emotional support animals are often confused with service and therapy animals. MSU Veterinary Social Work Services program coordinator Megan Spedoske said that the primary difference with emotional support animals is that they are not required to have any training.

While service animals are trained to serve a specific purpose and therapy animals are trained to serve other people, an emotional support animal is just an owned animal bonded to an individual, Spedoske said

What separates an emotional support animal from a pet is just the name and an individual’s understanding of their human-animal bond, Spedoske said.

“The companionship is really what people are seeking,” Spedoske said. “They're seeking connection with another being, it reduces isolation … The human-animal bond is kind of this golden thread that's really woven through these different populations.”

For physics sophomore Ben Pluta, having an emotional support animal made living on campus possible.

“My first year on campus, I ended up dropping out because of my mental health,” Pluta said. “And I ended up getting (my animals) before I came back on campus again.”

Ben Pluta Rats-6.jpg
Sophomore Ben Pluta poses for a portrait with his pet dwarf rat Biscuit in his dorm at Michigan State University on Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. Biscuit and Latte, Pluta's two emotional support rats, keep him company and help him fight depression. Pluta said being responsible for another living thing helps hold him accountable.

Pluta has two dwarf rats named Biscuit and Latte that live with him in his single dorm. He said having them has helped his depression as it gives him another living thing to be responsible for.

“It's very useful to have a companion and someone to keep you responsible,” Pluta said. “It's nice to have someone here with me.”

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Biscuit the dwarf rat munches on a piece of popcorn in sophomore Ben Pluta's dorm room at Michigan State University on Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. Pluta had Biscuit do a trick, offering a treat in return for a spin and a shake.

Spedoske said that the consistency and depth of a human-animal relationship creates a bond that can even surpass human relationships.

“When you think about it, our animals know our routines better than some of our best friends because they don't live with us,” Spedoske said. “Our animals know when we get up, they know when we're gonna go towards the pantry or wherever and it's time for food and it's time to go out or whatever the situation is. Our animals know us so, so well.”

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Fifth-year Alice Finlan feeds her emotional support cat a treat.

Landscape architecture and environmental design fifth-year Alice Finlan said she got her emotional support cat, Birch, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although she doesn't have severe mental illness, she said having Birch keeps her from developing symptoms. 

"I have to get up every morning and feed him, I have to clean the house, I have to clean his litter box," Finlan said. "I'm never really alone, even if I'm sitting in my room and [my roommate] is gone for the weekend or whatever, he's just there."

While Birch is the perfect addition to her household, Finlan said college students should be realistic about their lifestyle if they are considering getting an emotional support animal

“You definitely have to think about how often you're going to be home and your lifestyle,” Finlan said. “I have a cat but he also needs a lot of attention, so I have to be there for him. You have to be aware of what kind of animal you're getting, even if it's a hamster.”

Because enrichment is necessary for animals, Spedoske said knowing the space and time that is available for an animal should be a top priority. She said owners have to keep the animal’s needs in mind as well as their own.

“When people want to go get a puppy or a kitten because they quote unquote need that connection I support that,” Spedoske said. “I also want to know what's the enrichment plan ... they're thinking, feeling beings, so it's important that we don't just look at the situation from one perspective, that we're actually looking at this from really a one welfare perspective, where we're looking at the whole unit.”

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Spedoske said college students should make sure they have a plan for who will watch and play with their animal if they are at classes all day, what will be happening with the animal if they want to go out at night with their friends, and what they would do if their animal had an injury or illness.

Because the animal-human bond can have great benefits for both parties, people should value the connection that can be created, Spedoske said.

“The human-animal bond is kind of this golden thread that's really woven through these different populations,” Spedoske said. “There's vast research on the human-animal bond, and I think part of it is getting a better understanding, and the public at large is getting a better understanding of the role the animals can play, the connection, the grief experienced when that connection is disrupted and being able to honor that relationship.”

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