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Healing helpers

A furry friend who loves unconditionally can provide emotional support to better manage the stresses of life, say experts and ESA owners

Melissa Strahl and her husband pose with their ESA, Moko, while on a hike.
Melissa Strahl and her husband pose with their ESA, Moko, while on a hike.
Photo by Melissa Strahl

As people navigate the complexities of modern life, the presence of animals has proven to be a powerful antidote to stress, anxiety and loneliness, according to BYU–Hawaii faculty and alumni. Animals adorable and playful antics play a vital role in enhancing people’s health. Vanessa Latchumanan, a BYUH alumna from Malaysia who is completing her academic training at BYUH’s Counseling Services, shared, “Because animals give a sense of comfort and bonding, it gives a person a more therapeutic approach by providing a sense of security and companionship.”

Latchumanan highlighted the positive responses BYUH students have had to the presence of animals on campus. “BYUH Counseling Services has had volunteers who would offer their animals for outreach events,” she explained.

“Some students have pets back home, and they find familiarity and comfort in their pets, while others simply find that affectionate animals support their emotional needs.”

She said children are particularly receptive to the therapeutic influence of animals, further supporting the inclusion of animals in mental health initiatives. “In my opinion, having the companionship of an animal does support the emotional well-being of an individual, which decreases depression and enhances positive reinforcement into their mental health from the affection, comfort and security the animal gives,” Latchumanan said.

Elder Jeffrey Nye, a senior missionary from Utah over Women’s Services & Resources on campus, shared the positive health implications of the petting zoo WSR hosted in Fall 2023. Earlier in 2023, WSR cooperated with Lawrence Lovestock Farm to create an unforgettable experience, said Nye. He continued, “One of the owners came up a couple of weeks before the event, and she spent almost half a day with us. During the conversation with her then and the day of the petting zoo, she passionately talked about how animals support mental and emotional health.”

Nye shared about a BYUH student who found joy with the bunnies at the petting zoo. According to Nye, these furry creatures were a heartwarming reminder of her beloved bunny back home, which was a therapeutic presence given to her by her parents during the darkest chapter of her life. Reflecting on this, Nye emphasized the non-judgmental and appreciative nature of animals. “If you love that animal, that animal shows love back in a very different way than how we interact as humans. An animal doesn’t judge you but appreciates you as its owner,” he explained.

The companionship of emotional support animals

Sariah Bohne, a BYUH alumna from California, shared about her sister, Sarah Rogers, who found solace during her time at BYU–Idaho through the companionship of an emotional support animal named Hope.

Rogers said ESAs can serve as a pillar of strength when facing challenges in life. Rather than recommending Rogers up her dose of antidepressants while she was struggling, Rogers said her doctor recommended getting a puppy. “Hope helped me feel like I was not alone when I had panic attacks,” she said.

The Border Collie Blue Heeler mix became a daily motivator, providing her with a unique form of support during challenging times, Rogers said.

“I remember I was grieving due to the loss of my grandfather, and Hope gently licked the tears off my face. She was usually rougher since she was a high-energy breed. The gentleness of her mannerisms at that moment warmed my heart and comforted me in a way that no one else could have.”

Rogers cautioned that the misuse of ESAs can harm those who truly rely on them for mental health support, she said. “Many people assume that you can or should beg your doctor to write an ESA note to approve your animal for certain housing circumstances, such as the allowance of a pet as a college student in student housing or not having to pay a pet fee at regular accommodation in an apartment complex,” she explained. “Even if you have personally trained your animal to do something for you, that does not automatically make them an ESA.”

According to UMass Chan Medical School, the owner of an ESA must have a properly formatted prescription letter from a licensed mental health professional that documents a qualifying mental health or psychiatric disability.”

Rogers also highlighted an inspiring story of her friend, Melissa Strahl, and her furry companion, Moko, who provided comfort during Strahl’s academic journey at BYUI. Melissa Strahl, a BYUI alumna from Minnesota, said she learned about the decreased cortisol levels, which is the stress hormone, that comes from being with dogs in her psychology class. While Strahl was struggling with anxiety and hormonal migraines, she said she and her husband decided to bring home a puppy. “My husband had just started work at the time and I was lonely at home. We believed having a dog would help me get a routine down and feel less lonely,” she explained.

Strahl said having an ESA was initially challenging for her due to the stigma. Although she had heard of ESAs, she said she originally thought the people who had them wanted an excuse to have a dog in an apartment complex that did not allow pets. Strahl continued, “When my husband presented the idea of an ESA, I was a little embarrassed that I would need one. He pointed out that it would give me purpose in getting out of bed in the morning and help me get to class.”

Strahl said she realized Moko, a Retriever Husky Shepherd mix, was not only her source of companionship during moments of loneliness and stress. Moko’s presence significantly influenced her achievements, she shared. “Without Moko, I wouldn’t have been able to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in psychology,” shared Strahl.

Dr. Kate McLellan holds her mini pig
Kate McLellan says Kevin, her mini pig was worth every penny despite the challenges and expenses of raising a mini pig.
Photo by Kate McLellan

More than an impulse purchase

Kevin Bacon, a mini pig Dr. Kate McLellan and her family bought in 2017, transitioned from an impulse purchase to a cherished household member by the time she passed away in 2021, she said.

McLellan, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Sciences at BYUH, said she stumbled upon a roadside mini pig sale one day while driving through farm country near their San Diego home.

“I pulled over and bought the last one,” she said. “They thought it was a boy. About a week later, we took our mini pig to the vet and found out that ‘he’ was a ‘she.’ We had already named him ‘Kevin Bacon,’ so we kept the name.”

McLellan said she and her family soon discovered the specialized care required for mini pigs, including finding a vet accustomed to their unique health needs. Navigating the logistics of transporting Kevin with them when they decided to move to Hawaii proved challenging, as it included health tests, a large cage for the journey and dealing with airline charges, said McLellan.

She explained, “The airline charges by the pound, and Kevin weighed 90 pounds. The cage was another 50 pounds. It cost as much to fly him and our 15-pound dog here as it did to fly our three kids.”

McLellan said they also faced skepticism from neighbors, who jokingly suggested Kevin might end up as the main course for dinner. According to McLellan, Kevin wore a harness with an Apple AirTag tracker to ensure his safety and security against theft concerns. “He also needed walks because our yard here is small, but pigs don’t walk fast,” she said, “It took an hour to walk around the block.”

Despite the challenges and expenses of raising a mini pig, McLellan said Kevin was worth every penny. She described Kevin as social and cuddly and said she brought a unique and joyful presence to the family. “She loved to sit on the couch with you or on your feet if you were at the kitchen table,” she said.

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