The importance of support animals

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The importance of support animals

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As one walks along the sidewalks of Johnson State College, it is not uncommon to see a cat or two sunning themselves in the dorm room windows. This is because JSC allows students with diagnosed mental illnesses to have emotional support animals, or ESAs, on campus. There are currently 27 animals on campus, and they range from fish to cats to guinea pigs.

An emotional support animal is “an animal that is providing comfort and emotional mental support to a person,” says Kate McCarthy, the Director of the Wellness Center at Johnson State College. Emotional support animals come in a wide variety of species because what works for one person does not necessarily work for another. It takes time to find the perfect companion.

Alicia Eddy, a freshman at Johnson State College, says that her Chinese dwarf hamster, Mulan, is a perfect fit. Eddy says, “Having her [Mulan] living with me helps, because if I’m having a bad day or an anxiety attack, I will just take her out of her cage and just hold her and play with her, or I will put her in her hamster ball and just watch her roll around. It just helps me calm down and forget about what was going on.”

“Being with an animal, we have an increased release of oxytocin, which makes us feel happy,” says McCarthy. She also says, “Oxytocin is the same hormone that is released when a mother and a child bond, or a father and a child bond. It’s that bonding hormone, and there have been studies that show that it is increased when we bond with an animal. Those are those feel good hormones.” Oxytocin is jokingly dubbed the hug hormone, the cuddle chemical, and even the love hormone. “The goal and the role of the emotional support animal is to help provide that increase of oxytocin for somebody who needs it,” says McCarthy. Animals help to make people feel more comfortable in general.

Some people feel more comfortable talking and being open with others when there’s an animal in the room. It even gives people a conversation starter by discussing the animal. This helps with anxiety by taking attention off of the individual and putting it on the animal.

Emotional support dogs in particular help get people out and about. By needing to be taken outside and walked regularly, the owner is encouraged to exercise as well, which is also very beneficial to those with mental illnesses, especially those dealing with depression and anxiety. People owning pets are also forced to get out of bed in the morning to take care of their animals. That could be the only thing that the person does for the day, but having that sense of being needed is an encouragement. Ariel Corey, a sophomore at Johnson State, says that her cat, Little Bear, greatly helps her. “I don’t have a roommate,” Corey says. “So it’s nice coming home to an animal who I know will always love me. He’s a good distraction from the depression that I have. Whenever I’m feeling down, I can play with him or cuddle him and things will already feel better.”

McCarthy also says that there is an improvement in overall mental health when someone has to take care of something else other than themselves. Being required to help another creature live by giving it food, water and love helps the person feel needed, which can help deter suicidal thoughts and actions. “It really gives you a purpose, and it’s those little things that can make a big difference,” concluded McCarthy.

Johnson State College is just one of the colleges in Vermont that allows ESAs on their campus and in the residence halls. McCarthy says, “It shows that Johnson State, as an institution and as a college, really cares about the success of its students. The school understands that ESAs can increase the success of students, and a lot of schools may not be on board with that. I think that it really speaks to how the administration of JSC is really invested in the success of its students.”