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What is OCDOCD Stats & ScienceCan service animals help with OCD? What experts say

Can service animals help with OCD? What experts say

5 min read
Grant Stoddard

By Grant Stoddard

Reviewed by April Kilduff, MA, LCPC

Jan 18, 2024

If you’re grappling with a mental health disorder—whether it’s generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—having a service animal like a dog by your side can offer the emotional and practical assistance you need. 

Research has found that a furry friend may reduce feelings of anxiety, bring you back to the present if you get lost in your thoughts or worries, and even lessen the need for medication and health care services. Plus, caring for a service animal can add a sense of purpose, routine, and social connection to your life that boosts your well-being, says Nicholas Farrell, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and Director of Clinical Development and Programming at NOCD. 

Let’s take a look at how a pet may specifically help with OCD, starting with a little background about the disorder.

Understanding OCD

OCD is a serious mental health condition that affects 2.5% of the global population. It’s characterized by obsessive thoughts and compulsions that are done to neutralize the anxiety the thoughts provoke. Many people might feel like they’re “a little OCD” about certain things, but a true case of OCD meets the following criteria: 

  • A presence of obsessions—such as recurrent thoughts, images, sensations, urges, and/or feelings that cause anxiety or distress—and compulsions, which are repetitive behaviors or mental rituals intended to alleviate that anxiety. 
  • Obsessions and/or compulsions are time-consuming (for example, they may take more than one hour per day) or cause significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of your life.

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The symptoms of OCD can range from mild to debilitating, but any form of OCD can cause distress that may eat up a significant part of your day. Specifically, it can wrap you up in something called the OCD cycle. Here’s what this self-perpetuating, four-stage cycle looks like:

  • Obsessions These manifest as intrusive and persistent thoughts, images, sensations, feelings and/or urges that clash with your personal values and beliefs, causing significant distress. Examples of obsessions include fears of contamination, doubts about safety, or concerns about harm to yourself or others.
  • Compulsions To alleviate the distress you feel, you may engage in compulsive behaviors or mental rituals, including excessive hand washing, checking, counting, ruminating or seeking reassurance. These compulsions aim to reduce anxiety or prevent perceived harm. Really, though, they only reinforce the belief that your actions are necessary to avert harm or alleviate stress. Consequently, the cycle restarts, strengthening the connection between triggers, obsessions, and compulsions.

Can service animals reduce OCD symptoms? 

The research isn’t clear, but Dr. Farrell says that the absence of concrete evidence is not evidence of absence. “There hasn’t been sufficient, rigorous scientific study in the form of randomized controlled trials to show that service animals can reduce OCD symptoms,” he says. 

“But it’s possible that they may help. What we do know is that the gold-standard of treatment for people with OCD is exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP). My NOCD colleagues and I have used it with thousands of people—and it’s been able to get their lives back on track.” 

The short answer: We don’t really know yet. However, there are some other important things to note. Many conditions or populations that support animals have been shown to help with—depression, anxiety, PTSD, personality disorders—disproportionately impact people with OCD. And if you believe that emotional support animals or other service animals may be helpful for your own mental health struggles, you should talk to a licensed professional about how a furry friend can help you get better. But for OCD, you should speak with someone who has specialized training and experience and make sure you’re also using evidence-based treatment like ERP. 

All about exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP)

ERP was developed by psychologists in the 1960s and 1970s, and is an evidence-based, highly effective approach for treating OCD that is designed to confront obsessive thoughts directly, intentionally resisting the compulsion cycle that fuels distress and elevates the risk of additional mental health disorders. More specifically, it involves slowly exposing yourself to anxiety triggers while preventing your typical compulsive responses. This specialized approach has been shown to actually reshape your cognitive patterns, allowing you to break free from the OCD cycle.

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The steps involved in ERP include:

1. Assessment: Together, you and your specially-trained ERP therapist will explore your obsessions and compulsions, and how they impact your life. This is crucial for tailoring an ERP plan that suits your unique needs.

2. Exercises: You’ll gradually face situations that trigger your anxiety, starting with milder scenarios and progressing to more challenging ones. This step is essential for reshaping your relationship with the triggers.

3. Response prevention: Along with exposure exercises, you’ll simultaneously practice resisting the urge to engage in compulsive behaviors. This is a crucial step that helps break the cycle of anxiety and compulsion, allowing your brain to adapt and respond differently.

Through it all, your therapist will provide support, guidance, and feedback to help you navigate any emotional challenges that may arise, and reinforce the skills you’re developing. Homework assignments are an integral part of ERP that will strengthen your abilities beyond our therapy sessions. As you progress, you and your therapist will regularly review your initial goals, adjusting the treatment plan if needed. 

While service animals may be beneficial for a wide variety of mental struggles, the gold-standard treatment for OCD is ERP. The focus on gradual exposure and response prevention in ERP offers a systematic and evidence-based approach to addressing the root causes of OCD, promoting long-term strategies for sustained well-being.

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April Kilduff, MA, LCPC

April Kilduff is a NOCD therapist who has exclusively treated OCD and anxiety disorders, as well as their intersection with the Autism spectrum, for over a decade. Her path to this career started with her own journey dealing with panic attacks, perfectionism and a couple phobias. When not working on exposures with members, you can find her at home reading books and hanging out with her two cats or out taking pictures and traveling the world.