All You Need to Know About Emotional Support Animals

Last Updated 04-10-2023

An emotional support animal (ESA) is a companion animal that a licensed doctor or mental health expert has prescribed to an individual experiencing an emotional or mental disability with the belief that the animal provides them therapeutic benefits.

This may include alleviating at least one symptom of the disability. An ESA can be any domesticated animal, typically dogs, but sometimes also cats, hamsters, birds, horses, and other animals that may be used by people with a range of psychiatric, physical, or intellectual disabilities.

All You Need to Know About Emotional Support AnimalsAll You Need to Know About Emotional Support Animals

Emotional Support Animals vs Service Animals

A lot of people get confused between ESAs and service animals. While the primary purpose of both animals is to provide physical and mental stability to their owners, service animals are trained to fill their master’s limitations as a result of blindness or any other physical impairment.

For this reason, they are also granted more public rights as compared to emotional support animals.

Service animals are dogs that are specially trained to work or perform tasks for their disabled owners/handlers. They are highly trained to recognize and respond to the symptoms of the physical and psychiatric disability.

For instance, a dog that is trained to sense and help the signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in his owner by avoiding environmental triggers would be considered a service animal.

Similarly, a dog that assists its blind owner cross the road would also be seen as a service dog. Both local and federal laws allow service animal access to public places where they can accompany their disabled owners, places where regular pets or even emotional support animals would not be allowed.

How Do Emotional Support and Service Animals Differ?

For a dog to be a service animal, it should fulfill the following criteria, as put forward by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The person in need of a service animal must have proof that he is suffering from a life-limiting disability.

According to the ADA, a Service Dog has been trained to perform a task for an individual with a disability.

'' ...include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties."

Second, the dog must have gone through proper training that enables it to detect and respond to their master’s disability by carrying out tasks or assisting the individual with certain things, such as crossing the road.

Furthermore, these dogs must be well-behaved and must not cause chaos in public, or else they be legally excluded.

Service dogs are granted access to all public places, where they can accompany their disabled owners. These places include restaurants, markets, shopping malls, grocery stores, and non-sterile hospital areas.

Neither service dogs nor emotional support animals are obligated to wear an identification tag or vest, but many owners use special harnesses or ID badges to distinguish their animals from other pet dogs when out in the public, or in case they get lost.

On the other hand, ESAs are not obligated to be trained. However, they are still expected to be kept under control and well-behaved to prevent any disruption in public.

Emotional support animals are not allowed in most public places, except for those that have pet or ESA friendly policies.

However, they are protected under the Air Carrier Access Act and the Fair Housing Amendments Act, which means they are granted access on airplanes and allowed to live in a residence that might not be pet-friendly.

5 Ways Emotional Support Animals Help You

An increasing number of people with emotional or mental disabilities are turning towards ESAs, incorporating them in their treatment plans owing to a number of physical and mental health benefits that they bring along.

Let’s take a look at 5 ways in which ESAs can help you cope with mental conditions and also improve your overall health.

Reduces Stress

Stress Busting – petting an emotional support animal, especially a furry dog or cat, not only feels amazing but can also help you fight stress, lower your blood pressure, and also enable your body to relax by releasing a soothing hormone, which will help reduce the impact of stress hormones.

Improve Mood

Improve mood – ESA owners tend to be less lonely, more social and generally happier as compared to those emotionally disabled people who do not own emotional support animals.

This is because these friendly animals keep them occupied, entertained, and mentally and physically fit. Having a fluffy, cute presence around you is an instant mood lifter and can therefore make your whole day more meaningful.

Reduces Symptoms of Depression

Ease depression – your ESA loves you more than anything, and this can be a great boost to people who struggle with low self-esteem and depression. ESAs neither judge nor disagree with you, which can be something new and very refreshing for depressed individuals.

Reduces and Alleviates Symptoms of ADHD

Alleviate Symptoms of ADHD - ESAs can bring a myriad of benefits for children with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder).

This is because when these kids interact with their pets, they are taught the key lessons of planning and responsibility, and the whole petting experience gives allows them to perform various chores.

Furthermore, the bond with a pet and a child is based on unconditional love, which helps children with ADHD learn a valuable lesson in self-respect.

Reduce Anxiety and Promote a Sense of Wellbeing

Reduce feelings of anxiety, and promotes a general feeling of safety – when you have someone constantly by your side, whether a person or animal, you tend to feel less lonely, happier, and safer. ESAs can alleviate symptoms of paranoia and phobias in their owners.

How to Qualify

Not everyone can qualify for an emotional support animal. As per the National Institute of Mental Health, every one out of four Americans experience some type of emotional/mental disability. If you happen to be one of those people, you can easily apply for an ESA.

You will be assessed by a doctor or a therapist and will eventually be prescribed a therapy animal via an emotional support animal letter.

This letter covers the following points:

  1. That you have a certain mental disability that limits you from optimally performing daily tasks.

  2. That you are currently a patient of the doctor or mental health expert who confirmed your mental condition in the letter.

  3. That you are being treated by the same doctor, and the doctor believes that an ESA will be effective at helping you cope with the symptoms.

What are Some Qualifying Diagnosis

If you have been seeing a mental health counselor or therapist, you no doubt know your diagnosis, but for those who have never spoken to a counselor, you might be surprised by the number of diagnoses that qualify a person for an ESA.  Here are but a few of the many disorders people have that qualify them to own an emotional support animal

  • Social Anxiety Disorder
  • Depression
  • Fears and Phobias
  • Panic Disorder
  • General Anxiety Disorder
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
  • PTSD- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder
  • Eating Disorders
  • Dissociative Disorders
  • Gender and sexual Identity Disorders
  • Substance Related Disorders

Why Have an Emotional Support Animal?

Studies have shown that dogs have an effect on people, improving their health and emotional well-being.  Dogs and other animals can lower blood pressure and reduce cholesterol.  Beyond that, dogs can also

  • Lower stress levels and Improve Mental Health
  • Dog owners report less feelings of loneliness and fewer suicidal thoughts
  • Dog owners spend more time outdoors and get more exercise.
  • Having a dog increases the chance of meeting new people and forming new relationships

Where Do I Start the Process?

You can talk to your mental health counselor for advice or contact Therapy Pet to see if you would qualify for an emotional support animal.  If you do quality, a letter from a licensed practitioner is needed to prove that you have a legitimate need to keep an emotional support animal. 

If you do qualify the prescription letter is good for one year.  The letter may help you obtain housing and airline travel for you and your pet.  A year may be all that is necessary but in some cases, renewal of the prescription letter will be needed.  

A Complete Renter's Guide to Emotional Support Animals

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About Janice (author and voice behind this site)

Having lived with dogs and cats most of her life, Janice served as a veterinary technician for ten years in Maryland and twelve years as a Shih Tzu dog breeder in Ohio.

Her education includes undergraduate degrees in Psychology with a minor in biology, Early Childhood Education, and Nursing, and a master's in Mental Health Counseling.

She is a lifelong learner, a dog lover, and passionate about the welfare of animals. Her favorite breed for over 50 years has been the Shih Tzu, but she has also lived with Poodles, Maltese, Yorkshire Terriers, Beagles, English Bulldogs, Carin Terriers, and a Cocker Spaniel.

When not writing, reading, and researching dog-related topics, she likes to spend time with her eight Shih Tzu dogs, husband, and family, as well as knitting and crocheting. She is also the voice behind Miracle Shih Tzu and Smart-Knit-Crocheting

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