Bianca Hernandez was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis as a teenager after months of significant weight loss. The months that followed were challenging, she says, as eventually she ended up in the hospital for a week during a very bad flare-up.
“When I was in the hospital, I remember feeling so hopeless and weak,” Hernandez says. The hospital, Baptist Children's Hospital in Miami, had therapy dogs that visited patients to give them emotional support and help with stress.
It was the highlight of my week in the hospital, says Hernandez, now 21 and working in a public relations firm representing health clients.
A few months later, Hernandez was re-diagnosed -- this time with Crohn’s disease, which can affect more of the GI tract. She started on a biologic, a much stronger treatment, which meant regular visits to the hospital to get her medicine.
“I was reunited with some of the pups I met during my hospital stay. The dogs made some infusion days so much brighter,” she says.
But the hospital therapy dogs weren’t the only ones who helped Hernandez deal with the stress of her illness. Family dog Chloe, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, also helped ease her anxiety, she says.
“I remember the day I was diagnosed I came home and played on the sofa with Chloe. She instantly knew that I had had ‘a morning,’ and was there to comfort me,” Hernandez says.
When Chloe died, the vet shared that her heart was too big for her body. “I like to think that she had so much love to give,” Hernandez says.
Hernandez knew that she needed another dog to fill the void that Chloe left. A few months later, she brought home Benjamin, another Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.
“He brings me immense joy,” Hernandez says. “In connection with my disease, I would say getting Benjamin is a great distraction from the other things going on in my life. Since the start of the pandemic, I have adapted to having my infusions at home. Benjamin often comes and sleeps with me during my infusions or comes to lay with me on days where I am not feeling well.”
Emotional Support, Service, and Therapy Animals
Chloe and Benjamin weren’t specifically trained to help Hernandez deal with her disease. But just being there eased her stress. There are service, therapy, or emotional support animals that some people use for illnesses or disabilities.
Service animals are dogs that are trained to perform specific tasks related to a person’s disability. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service dogs are allowed to go places where other animals can’t, like restaurants, stores, and public transportation.
Therapy animals are pets that visit hospitals, nursing homes, and other places to comfort people. They’re generally trained and often have gone through the AKC Canine Good Citizen program but don’t have the same protections as service dogs.
Emotional support animals (ESAs) provide comfort to their owners, often to relieve stress and anxiety. They have some additional legal protections under the Fair Housing Act. ESAs usually require a letter of diagnosis from the owner’s psychiatrist or doctor for certification. Many online groups will provide these certificates without a consultation with the person or their pet. Unlike service dogs, emotional support animals aren’t allowed to go everywhere.
Emotional Support Animals and Ulcerative Colitis
“Even though stress doesn't cause ulcerative colitis, we do know that stress can cause painful flare-ups,” says Prairie Conlon, licensed professional counselor and clinical director of CertaPet, an online company that certified emotional support animals.
“Because animals are a daily and consistent form of treatment that help increase our ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters like dopamine and oxytocin,” ESAs can help ease stress and reduce flare-ups, Conlon says.
Many studies have found that being with a pet can reduce stress and lower anxiety. Pets have been linked to lower heart rate and blood pressure. They can ease feelings of depression, loneliness, and fear. Just petting a dog or cat for 10 minutes can lower levels of cortisol, your “fight or flight” stress hormone.
Getting an Emotional Support Animal
An emotional support animal is often a dog or cat but can be other animals too. You don’t need special training or certification for your pet unless you want to have your animal live with you in no-pets housing or use transportation that doesn’t typically allow animals.
However, under a new Department of Transportation rule announced in December 2020, only service dogs trained to perform tasks for a person with a disability can fly in planes with their owners. Emotional support animals don’t fit the revised rule.
To be certified, you need a signed letter from a licensed medical or mental health professional in your state, saying a pet can help with your ulcerative colitis. Because there are so many sites online, check the Better Business Bureau or ask your doctor for suggestions.
If you already own a pet that helps with your stress, especially when you have a flare-up, you can start there. If you’re starting from scratch, then choosing an emotional support animal is like picking any other pet. Think about your lifestyle and the care you need to decide what type of pet is right for you.
Training Your Pet
If you want your pet to comfort you during a flare-up or when your symptoms are stressing you out, it’s smart to teach them to recognize you need help, says certified dog trainer and behaviorist Susie Aga.
“Teach them some kind of alert that you need them to come to you,” Aga says. She suggests a whistle or a word that you only use in these situations. Try “stress” or “help.”
You can teach your pet to come sit right next to you, nuzzle your face, or nudge your hand, drawing your attention away from your pain and stress.
“When they’re near you, you automatically get calmer,” Aga says. “Teach your dog whatever will make you decompress and feel better the fastest.”
As for Hernandez, she’s become an advocate for pets as emotional therapy for ulcerative colitis help.
“If you’ve ever thought about getting a pet, I encourage you to take the risk,” she says. She now has several friends who have emotional support animals to help with their Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.
“Take it from the girl who really had no idea what she was signing up for but whose world has been much brighter,” she says. “The best part of all animals is that they will constantly love you. If you make a wrong choice, if you are rocking a ‘steroid moon face,’ if you forget to give them a little treat before going to bed, your pet will constantly support you and love you through it all.”