A therapy-animal trend grips the United States. The San Francisco airport now deploys a pig to calm frazzled travelers. Universities nationwide bring dogs (and a donkey) onto campus to soothe students during finals. Llamas comfort hospital patients, pooches provide succor at disaster sites and horses are used to treat sex addiction.
And that duck on a plane? It might be an emotional-support animal prescribed by a mental health professional.
The trend, which has accelerated hugely since its initial stirrings a few decades ago, is underpinned by a widespread belief that interaction with animals can reduce distress — whether it happens over brief caresses at the airport or in long-term relationships at home. Certainly, the groups offering up pets think this, as do some mental health professionals. But the popular embrace of pets as furry therapists is causing growing discomfort among some researchers in the field, who say it has raced far ahead of scientific evidence.
Earlier this year in the Journal of Applied Developmental Science, an introduction to a series of articles on “animal-assisted intervention” said research into its efficacy “remains in its infancy.” A recent literature review by Molly Crossman, a Yale University doctoral candidate who recently wrapped up one study involving an 8-year-old dog named Pardner, cited a “murky body of evidence” that sometimes has shown positive short-term effects, often found no effect and occasionally identified higher rates of distress.
Karin Bruillard, Washington Post, July 2, 2017
In a study of sitting and walking ability that surveyed people ages 50 to 71 across 8 to 10 years, those who tended to sit the most and move the least had more than three times the risk of difficulty walking by the end of the study, when compared to their more active counterparts.
Patti Neighmond, NPR, September 4, 2017
The tree lobster, one of the rarest insects on Earth, has lived a rather twisted life story.
Scientifically known as Dryococelus australis, this six-inch-long stick bug with a lobster-esque exoskeleton once occupied Lord Howe Island in the Tasman Sea, between Australia and New Zealand.
In 1918, rats escaping a capsized steamship swam ashore. The tree lobsters became rat chow. Two years later, all tree lobsters seemed to have vanished, and by 1960 they were declared extinct.
But in the latest chapter for what has also been called the Lord Howe stick insect, scientists compared the genomes of living stick bugs from a small island nearby to those of museum specimens, revealing that they are indeed the same species.
Joanna Klein, New York Times, October 6, 2017