Speaking from the perspective of one who has worked in hospitals for many years, the value of animal comfort and contact simply cannot be overstated. For staff and patients, Pet Therapy days were always the happiest. Pet therapy has a long history, especially in pediatric populations. I found a neat little timeline on animal therapy history– from 1792! See it here: http://blogs.uoregon.edu/juewsm13gateway/timeline/
Animal therapy has taken many forms. Most commonly, animals were used to alleviate psychological distress, and responsibility for animal care was an integral part of many psychiatric and rehabilitation settings. Animal therapy or therapeutic recreation, is also well-known to those who work with persons with physical, medical and/or intellectual/developmental disabilities.
See this great article on personal pet visits in hospital: http://newoldage.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/10/when-best-friends-can-visit/ Other common therapeutic activities include canine therapy visits to hospital wards and equine therapy.
More recently, a somewhat different, and more controversial, version has developed, referred to as Animal-Assisted or Animal-Facilitated Intervention. This intervention emphasizes the use of assistance animals or ‘comfort’ animals, thought to reduce anxiety, at least in the short term. In fact, O’Haire, Guerin and Kirkham (2015) note that methodology is non-standardized and highly variable across settings, which makes study of the practice rather challenging; the long-term benefits, if any, are not clear.
Critics argue that comfort animals are a proxy for psychosocial maturity, and that reliance on creatures is like taking Valium instead of using cognitive behavioral techniques, or even fortitude, to reduce anxiety. And how, they argue, will patients learn to function in “real life” carrying an animal under one arm? Some argue that rights of those without comfort animals are taking a backseat, as they may not want to be exposed to pet dander, noise or mess.
Proponents say that if one can achieve goals (such as graduating or traveling) using a comfort animal, then the technique is a success. I tend towards the former persuasion, with the added concern that there may be elements of the therapy that end up being unhelpful in the long-term, like over-identification with a disability or diagnostic label. There may also well be some patient populations who are not well-suited for this intervention, but the research just has not been done.
You may have seen this New York Times article on comfort animals: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/05/us/four-legged-roommates-help-with-the-stresses-of-campus-life.html The story actually deals with the conflict between property damage laws and disability discrimination laws, but the Comments section is really lively and well-reasoned (well, most of it). And you probably remember the fracas over the notorious “comfort pig” last year: http://www.cnn.com/2014/11/30/travel/emotional-support-pig-booted-flight/
The comfort pig can maybe get his own back: apparently the emotional symbiosis works both ways: see http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26244335
For another take on unforeseen consequences, see this fascinating article on registration of assistance animals in California over the past decade: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26287610
My personal choice of comfort animal:
[As an interesting aside, “animal hoarding” is sometimes covered in media, and would fall under the new diagnostic category of Hoarding Disorder. The impact of animal hoarding on emotional functioning/well-being is likely a complex topic and a fascinating avenue for research given companion animal popularity. There is little research on the topic but a recent study by Campos-Lima, et al., (2015) suggests there is little relationship between animal hoarding and OCD, or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder].
Campos-Lima, A., Torres, A., Yucel, M.,….Fontenelle, L. (2015) Hoarding pet animals in OCD. Acta Neuropsychiat, 27(1) 8-13.
O’Haire, M, Guerin, N., & Kirkham, A. (2015) Animal assisted intervention for trauma. Front Psychol, Aug 7;6:1121. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01121.
Yamamoto, M., Lopez, M., & Hart, A (2015). Registrations of assistance dogs in California for identification tags 1999-2012. PLosOne, Aug 19;10(8):e0132820. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0132820. eCollection 2015.