Emotional Support Animals; are they for me?

Having an Emotional Support Animal (ESA) has grown in popularity over the past 10 years, however animal assisted therapy is not a new concept. The Greeks were the first to notice that horses could lift the spirits of sick patients as far back as 600 BC. Animal assisted therapy was again present during the 1600s, when horses were utilized to help improve the health of their patients physically and mentally. During the 1800s, Florence Nightingale noted the reduction of anxiety in her psychiatric patients when they spent time with animals. 

You may ask yourself this question, “Isn’t just having a pet enough?” Having a pet has been proven to have innumerable mental health benefits, for example:

  • Lowered stress levels due linked to lowering blood pressure and heart rate
  • Helping cope with depression due to the elevation of mood, encouragement of physical activity, and healthy distraction from negative thoughts
  • Reduction in feelings of isolation and loneliness
  • Improved sense of well-being
  • Improved sense of control over one’s life due to the consistency and routine of caring for a pet 

So, with all of these benefits, you may question the need for an emotional support animal. Here are some notable differences between having a pet and having an emotional support animal:

  1. An emotional support animal is prescribed for a specific mental health diagnosis, such as anxiety, depression, panic attacks, PTSD, and Autism Spectrum Disorder. Without one of these qualifying diagnoses, it is unlikely that your pet will be approved as an emotional support animal.
  2. Emotional Support Animals will spend more time with you, both inside and outside of the home. They often accompany individuals to work, school, traveling, and other situations that may trigger mental health symptoms to arise.
  3. Emotional Support Animals are allowed to stay in rental properties where pet restrictions are in place. The Housing Amendments Act states that landlords must make reasonable accommodations for tenants to live with their emotional support animals.
  4. Emotional Support Animals have more access to public spaces. Although it is up to each public space to make their own judgement about whether or not an emotional support animal can enter their domain, individuals are much more likely to be accommodating for an Emotional Support Animal. 
  5. And finally, Emotional Support Animals can travel with you via airplanes as a result of the Air Carrier Access Act, which means you do not have to spend your vacation apart from one another.

Next steps

If you believe an ESA will aid your mental health, the next steps are to talk to a licensed mental health provider to gain the proper diagnosis and documentation in order to do so. Your existing pet can become an Emotional Support Animal, or you can obtain a new animal solely for this purpose. Certain breeds offer more benefits than others, however there are no restrictions on what qualifies as an ESA. As with any healthy coping skill, you will gain the most benefits for your mental health from having an Emotional Support Animal in conjunction with mental health treatment/therapy, so keep this in mind when making your decision. 

By Alexandria Baxter, LMSW