Is an emotional support animal serving a person's needs or their narcissism?

A few years ago on a flight from Florida to New York, a small, extremely excited dog confused, entranced and disconcerted my fellow passengers and me. It was the first time that most of us had seen an emotional support animal, which his owner said she needed to help her cope with anxiety.

Since then, as a recent article in The New York Times reports, “The number of people claiming they have a right to live with animals for their mental health — as well as to take them onto planes and into restaurants and stores — has been growing rapidly.” Furthermore, the range of animals that provide emotional support has expanded to include geese, pigs, peacocks and even iguanas and snakes.

There seem to be three basic reasons for this uptick in support animals.

Service peacock at Newark Airport.Courtesy Ramon Colon

One is that, according to statistics from the World Health Organization, the level of both anxiety and depression in the world has increased drastically in the past decade. Animals are often soothing and comforting, which is why they are used for therapy in nursing homes, hospitals and schools.

John Howland, a friend who is a psychiatrist in Massachusetts, told me that his patients often request that he “certify some kind of emotional dependence on animals to live with them, usually in supportive housing, or to allow their animals to accompany them on planes or other public transit.” He said: “Most people who request such letters are in various stages of anxiety and sometimes depression. They can rely on animals when people are less trustworthy, available and tolerant.” (I do not write such letters for clients.)

Early in my training, a supervisor told me that his own pets sometimes came into his office, and that patients felt calmed by them. And, at one point I needed to take a pet to an emergency veterinary appointment and, out of necessity, brought her to work with me. One client, a socially isolated woman, asked me to let her out of her carrier. To my amazement, the cat rested quietly beside her for the entire session. In the next session, my client told me, “I’ve never felt so peaceful as I did with your cat sitting with me.”