By Isabella Rosario
Last week, The Daily Iowan ran the article “UI will continue to allow emotional-support animals despite discrediting study.” The article said the study “dispels the idea that emotional-support animals are effective.”
The study is a 2016 literature review in The Journal of Clinical Psychology conducted by Molly Crossman, a researcher at Yale University. Crossman found that human-animal interaction has a small to medium effect on psychological stress, but whether animals account for this treatment effect is unclear. She told Vox News, “The clearest conclusion in the field is that we cannot yet draw clear conclusions.”
So, evidence supporting the effectiveness of emotional-support animals is murky. But does that mean this study dispels their effectiveness? No. The very nature of inconclusive evidence is that definitive conclusions cannot be drawn from it. The study’s conclusion states that future research needs to “address methodological limitations and expand the focus beyond treatment outcome studies.” In a time in which the use of emotional-support animals is highly stigmatized, this distinction is important.
Emotional-support animals are making headlines, mostly in respect to air travel. A peacock was denied a flight by United Airlines. A hamster was flushed down a toilet after a Spirit Air employee allegedly suggested the disposal. As the stories have become increasingly ridiculous, airlines have understandably tightened their regulations. To travel with Delta Airlines, people traveling with service or emotional-support animals must now provide proof of training and vaccination, 48 hours in advance.
This is intended to be a crackdown on people who falsely claim their pets are service or emotional-support animals. But it will punish people with disabilities who need these accommodations the most. The inaccessibility of airlines is already difficult for those with disabilities, especially those with mobility aids. The added paperwork is just another burden — and the few people who fake disabilities only make it harder for people who have them to be believed.
The negativity associated with emotional-support animals is further compounded by misinterpretation of Crossman’s study. Prevention.com ran a story on it with the headline “Emotional-Support Animals Probably Don’t Do Anything for Anxiety” — which is not supported by the largely inconclusive research. The DI story makes a similar, incorrectly definitive claim. And to make matters worse, many stories have paired reporting on Crossman’s study with these outrageous airline stories; many of these articles also neglect accounting for people helped by emotional-support animals in their workplace, school, or home.
Crossman’s study rightfully exposed the fact that existing studies provide little evidence supporting the effectiveness of emotional-support animals. But we shouldn’t jump to conclusions before better research has the chance to give us any. There are people, including the students interviewed in the DI story, who find their animals to be a great source of comfort in times of stress. While we wait for science to provide quantitative evidence, we should also listen to the stories of regular people. Their testimonies indicate that research has simply failed to adequately quantify their relief.