You may have seen an emotional support pet like a cuddly dog or a cat traveling with its owner at the airport. These emotional support animals (ESA for short) provide comfort and convenience to assist their owners in socially awkward situations or those that take them out of their comfort zone. Having an emotional support pet you love as a companion can assuage anxiety, worries and fears, especially in chaotic environments like an airport.
However, it’s not just about easier traveling when you have an emotional support pet. People who suffer with depression, anxiety, or have other mental health problems, find these animals to be a daily comfort at home.
In the past, the issue of owning an emotional support pet went viral worldwide because an ESA peacock was banned from entry by an airline, stating the animal did not meet many regulatory requirements, including size and weight guidelines. This issue highlighted why many individuals suffering from emotional and mental illnesses benefit from owning an emotional support pet. While a peacock may be a very unique choice for an emotional support pet (a dog is much more common) this incident drew attention to the concept of emotional support animals for mental health.
The viral incident drew attention to how others who are struggling need more compassion. Even people who are not fond of animals could see how these kind creatures help humans. It’s important to understand why other people need this kind of support, as it fosters empathy. Creating awareness about why some people need an emotional support pet promotes an inclusive society with more tolerance and acceptance of others with different needs. Below, you’ll learn more about owning an emotional pet and how it could help with mental health.
What Exactly is an Emotional Support Pet?
An emotional support pet could be any animal like a dog, cat, mouse, ferret, rabbit, hamster, mini pig, dwarf goat, parrot, horse, alpaca, etc. of any age that provides therapeutic benefits like companionship, emotional support, and comfort to their owners who struggle with mental issues. Although animals form an emotional bond and give comfort to their owners, an ESA must be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional. A psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist determines if a person needs an ESA for mental health. They will provide certification on official letterhead or a proper prescription letter stating the pet alleviates one or more symptoms of an emotional or mental disorder.
Although an emotional support pet can ease anxiety, depression, panic attacks, or even reduce certain phobias, these emotional support animals do not share the same category as service animals, since they have not been specifically trained to do certain tasks. As such, ESA owners do not have the same federal rights of access to facilities or level of accommodation as one with a service animal. For instance, a service dog can be anywhere where the public is allowed. In contrast, an emotional support pet may be barred from entering malls or restaurants.
How Do ESAs Differ From Service Animals?
The American With Disabilities Act stipulates that service animals are any “dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” Hence, animals that only provide emotional comfort cannot be qualified as service animals.
Service dogs have been trained to perform a job related to a person’s disability to mitigate issues and emotional support pets are considered to have not undergone the same level of training.
For instance, service dogs alert a visually-impaired person about an obstacle or let a hearing-impaired owner know that there’s an alarm. Psychiatric service dogs who help with mental illnesses are also service animals.
Although some may assert that these psychiatric service dogs proffer the same service as emotional support pets, they do not. Psychiatric service dogs undergo rigorous education. They can detect the onset of mental episodes and even alert owners to take medications. Providing cuddles and muzzle kisses to comfort an owner is instinctive to animals so emotional support pets are not in the same category as service animals. However, these differences don't mean that ESAs are not important or serve a purpose.
Who is Best Suited to Own an Emotional Support Animal?
If you are considering owning an emotional support pet, first you need certification. An animal can only be considered an ESA with documentation from a mental health professional or social worker, attesting that the pet alleviates symptoms such as anxiety symptoms. The following are common disabilities that qualify for ESA ownership:
- Anxiety disorders
- Panic attack disorder
- Learning disabilities
- Chronic stress
- Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
- Mild cases of PTSD
- Certain phobias
- Victims of trauma
Healthcare professionals could prescribe an emotional support pet along with (or instead of) medications to provide comfort for those who are struggling with the above-mentioned mental illness and emotional issues.
Studies show that having an emotional support pet decreases anxiety and depression, since pets provide companionship, help regulate emotions, manage stress, combat feelings of loneliness or depression, regulate one’s nervous system, and promote mental stability. The steady presence of a familiar animal can help owners relax, deal with negative thoughts, self-regulate, stabilize emotions, and focus, especially in chaotic environments or during instances that can trigger an episode.
Benefits of Owning an Emotional Support Pet
Even if animals can’t talk, having an emotional support pet provides very beneficial companionship and physical affection. Many ESA owners enjoy interacting with their pets, cuddling on the couch, and don’t feel as isolated. They talk to the pets, play with them, and enjoy unlimited cuddles, which provide reassurance and recalibrate emotions. Research attests that individuals feel less anxious and lonely when holding or petting an animal. They experience more normal heart rate and blood pressure levels, so having an ESA could help ease the symptoms of emotional or mental illness. Pets help people cope since the animal’s physical presence provides an emotional boost and mental stimulation.
Moreover, since animals require attention, taking care of a living creature could help someone with mental illness by boosting confidence and making them feel independent and important. Caring for their pets draws the mind away from things that give them anxiety and encourages them to do things that are beneficial to their mental health. For example, owning an ESA could motivate someone with mental health struggles to leave the comforts of home to take a dog on long walks. Their routine might change, especially if they used to feel too depressed to leave the house. Though caring for an animal comes with certain challenges, it provides a sense of purpose and fosters productivity, which is highly beneficial for people with emotional and mental problems.
Moreover, owning an ESA comes with certain privileges. For instance, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recognizes the importance of an emotional support pet, so they released regulations that allow emotional support pets to live in a condominium with a no-pet policy. An ESA certification could also waive a pet deposit or monthly pet fees.
Furthermore, many domestic airlines and train companies provide free travel to certain ESAs, so owners may potentially not have to pay for the animal’s travel. Typical requirements include certification of the animal’s health from a licensed vet, certification from the physician regarding personal health, and signing forms that let the owner take full responsibility for the animal. Others have specific requirements like making sure the ESA fits in a kennel that can go under the seat. If you’re traveling with an ESA, it’s prudent to check with the company of carriage to be sure.
I Want an Emotional Support Pet. What are the Next Steps?
If you have a diagnosed mental health condition such as a diagnosed anxiety disorder or clinical depression, you might be eligible to get a certified emotional support animal.
If you’ve spent time with pets and realized these cuddly creatures have a calming effect on you and a positive impact on your mental health, this is a good sign that an emotional support animal could work for you. These are the next steps:
- Speak to your therapist and your doctor about getting the medical recommendation of an emotional support animal, and find out if you’re qualified.
- Research how much responsibility, money and work it is to own a pet, and ensure you feel confident you’re able to be a good pet owner.
- Think about what type of emotional support pet you would want. Common emotional support animals are dogs (such as Golden Retrievers, Corgis, or Labradors) and cats, or even hamsters or gerbils.
Remember that just as humans can get DNA tests to find out more about their genetic traits, you’ll find that with animals, different breeds have different DNA, and some breeds are more suited to being an emotional support pet. You’ll want to properly research the breed before choosing a pet.
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- Emotional support peacock banned from United Airlines plane (BBC News) https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-42880690
- Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals (ADA) https://adata.org/guide/service-animals-and-emotional-support-animals
- The power of support from companion animals for people living with mental health problems: a systematic review and narrative synthesis of the evidence (Helen Louise Brooks et.al.) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5800290/
- Pet Presence Can Reduce Anxiety in the Elderly: The Italian Experience during COVID-19 Lockdown Assessed by an Electronic Survey (Daniele Giansanti et.al.)
- US Department of Housing Issues New Rules on Emotional Support Animals (ESA Doctors) https://esadoctors.com/hud-housing-rules-emotional-support-animals/