Emotional Support Animals Really Make You Feel Better
Everyone benefits from having a pet, but some of us depend on our furry friends for support more than others. For those with anxiety, depression, or other common emotional and mental health conditions, the presence of an emotional support pet can be life-changing.
So what's the difference between an ordinary dog, an emotional support dog and a service dog? Here are the facts.
What Are the Proven Benefits of Having an Emotional Support Animal?
Years ago, the benefits of having an affectionate animal companion for emotional support was speculation. Now, it's well-documented.
In one 2018 study, for example, people with documented mental health conditions demonstrated significant benefits from the connection they shared with a pet. This was particularly powerful in times of elevated stress, or even crisis situations.
The reported benefits of emotional support animals include:
- Stress reduction
- Improved quality of life
- Greater exposure to social and community settings
- Improved sense of security and safety
- Assistance managing diagnosable mental health disorders alongside a comprehensive psychiatric treatment plan
Many pet owners believe their animals intuitively know how and when to provide comfort. The sense of responsibility that comes with caring for a pet can be overwhelming in its own way, but it also provides a sense of purpose. If you're feeling apathetic and everything is meaningless, knowing that a sweet, loving animal is counting on you may help.
Dog ownership also encourages people to get outside and move. Just taking a walk increases the likelihood of engaging in meaningful social interaction with other people, and the act of walking alone can alleviate symptoms of depression.
The inevitable reality of losing a pet can be heartbreaking and difficult to process, but most people with emotional support animals feel the time they shared with their companion far outweighs the pain of their passing. The exact benefits vary from case to case, but if feeling connected with a special pet brings you comfort, registering them as an emotional support animal is worth looking into.
Who Qualifies for an Emotional Support Pet?
Not just anyone can register an emotional support pet. A proliferation of people who try to label their pet as an emotional support animal, or ESA, just to get them onto airplanes for free has given the entire concept a bad name.
Emotional support animals are completely legitimate, but you need a letter from a licensed medical professional to get your pet licensed. Conditions that qualify you for a ESA include:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Bipolar disorder
- Other conditions
Many conditions qualify, but a licensed clinician needs to provide a valid ESA letter for pet owners to present in applicable situations, such as during travel. Once you get a letter, there's no need to disclose the nature of your disability unless you want to.
Are Emotional Support Dogs Service Dogs?
"Emotional support dog" is not a synonym for "service dog." Emotional support dogs are there to provide companionship and emotional support. For those with certain phobias or people who struggle with bouts of anxiety, emotional support animals can be life-changing.
They don't, however, offer the same benefits as a service animal. Service dogs are trained to perform tasks for those with disabilities, like blindness or mobility issues. They're allowed anywhere that the general public is allowed because people rely on them for essential life functions. Emotional support animals come with some legal perks, but registering your bunny as an ESA won't get you a free pass to take Mr. Carrots along to the movie theater.
Both kinds of support animals are valuable. They're simply intended for different types of assistance.
Do Emotional Support Animals Need Special Training?
Nope. The biggest difference between an emotional support animal and a service animal is that ESAs require no training at all.
They're required to improve their human companion's ability to function, but the law doesn't stipulate in which way.
If you benefit just from petting or holding your ESA, that's completely fine.
Are Emotional Support Animals Basically Just Pets?
Yes and no. Emotional support animals don't necessarily perform any functions beyond that of an ordinary pet. The difference lies in the relationship they share with their special person. Instead of just bringing laughs and games of fetch to the table, they bring a sense of calm and a reduction of psychiatric symptoms, improving their quality of life.
An ESA letter may be more of a formality than anything else, but the benefits people experience from having a special bond with their animal is very real.
For those with more serious mental health conditions, a psychiatric service animal may be a better choice. Unlike ESAs, psychiatric service animals are specially trained to detect the beginnings of psychiatric episodes and take action to keep their handler safe.
What Kind of Animals Can Be Emotional Support Animals?
Dogs are the most popular choice for emotional support animals, but ESAs aren't limited to canines. Cats, bunnies, guinea pigs, birds, bearded dragons and many other domesticated animals can qualify as an emotional support animal.
While horses and other large animals can be ESAs, they won't work well if you intend on bringing them along during travel, for obvious reasons. Some exotic pets are also iffy, like snakes or spiders.
As a rule of thumb, if it's harmless, fluffy or feathery, and reasonably sized, the animal will likely qualify.
Where Are Emotional Support Animals Allowed?
When it comes to travel, your mileage may vary. This, unfortunately, is the result of too many people without qualifying conditions abusing the system just to bring pets on vacations for free. The United States Department of Transportation revised its Air Carrier Access Act in 2020.
Since January 2021, airlines are no longer required to consider ESAs as "service animals," and typically treat them as regular pets. Check with your airline before booking, but expect to pay a normal pet fee and follow all applicable pet policies while traveling with your ESA.
The same goes for businesses, including restaurants, stores, hotels and schools. Whether or not a place grants special accommodations for ESAs is up to the management, not the law.
When in doubt, ask nicely. While your employer isn't legally required to make an exception, if they like you and love your dog, you might still be able to bring your ESA to the office.
Are There Housing Accommodations for Emotional Support Animals?
ESAs don't get an all-access pass to the human world like service animals do, but they do come with significant legal benefits.
The Fair Housing Act now stipulates that all landlords with more than three rental units must allow tenants to keep their emotional support animals, even if the apartment or home usually has a "no pets" policy.
Students in dorms also qualify.
How Does One Get an Emotional Support Pet?
The process for registering your dog, cat, gerbil, or whatever other critter brings you comfort, as an emotional support animal is as easy as getting a note from a licensed medical professional. If you already have a diagnosed condition and work with a licensed therapist or psychologist, just ask them.
If not, you can get a letter by seeing a social worker, medical doctor, registered nurse or psychologist. They'll provide a screening, and if you qualify, you'll get the letter you need.
You can also get an ESA letter through an online screening, but look out for scams. To qualify, the letter has to be from a medical professional who's actively licensed in your state of residence.
For more information on reliable online sources, keep reading here.
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