What are the benefits of emotional support animals?

There are physical, emotional and psychological advantages of an ESA

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Animals have an extraordinary capacity for empathy. They often sense when we’re upset and even try to console us.

For people needing mental health support, emotional support animals (ESAs) can play a pivotal role. Studies show that pets can reduce anxiety and depression in their owners. They may also relieve symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder and even schizophrenia.

Key insights

An ESA is an animal companion that alleviates the symptoms of a mental health condition.

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ESAs can also provide physical health benefits, such as lower cholesterol, triglycerides and cortisol levels.

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Working with an ESA may improve an individual’s social interactions and relationships.

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What is an ESA?

An ESA is a domesticated animal that relieves the symptoms or effects of its owner’s disability. Some conditions that are eligible for an ESA include anxiety disorders, depression, schizophrenia and certain mood disorders.

For a person to qualify for an ESA, they must receive a diagnosis of a mental or emotional disorder from a licensed mental health professional (LMHP) and a prescription letter recommending an ESA.

ESAs vs. service animals

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not consider ESAs service animals. A service animal is a dog. However, an ESA can be any domesticated animal, including a dog, cat, bird, miniature pig, hamster or snake.

ESA legal protections

Service animals receive different legal protections from ESAs. For example, service animals can typically go anywhere their owner goes, while businesses and airlines can deny entry to ESAs.

However, ESAs have similar housing rights to service animals. The Fair Housing Act states that housing providers must make reasonable accommodations for assistance animals, so housing providers usually can’t deny them (except in certain circumstances).

» MORE: What is equal-opportunity housing?

The role of ESAs in mental health

Evidence suggests that pets and, by extension, ESAs can assist people in managing their mental health conditions.

A 2016 study discovered that pets successfully distracted participants with long-term mental health problems (such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia) from symptoms and distressing experiences. Researchers concluded that pets should be a primary source of support for people struggling with long-term mental health problems.

In another study, U.S. military veterans experiencing PTSD reported the benefits of living with a dog. Respondents said they felt calmer, less lonely and less depressed.

Physical health benefits of an ESA

Research indicates that the bond between people and their pets can offer various physical health benefits, including lowered cholesterol, blood pressure and triglyceride levels. It may also enhance cognitive function in older adults.

An ESA provides more opportunities to exercise outside. For example, if you have a dog, you may feel more motivated to go to the park for a walk.

Exercising in nature can improve physical health through decreased cortisol levels, heart rates, and muscle tension. It can also lower the chance of heart disease and boost mental health.

Psychological and emotional benefits of an ESA

The company of an ESA can have multiple psychological and emotional benefits, such as reducing loneliness, depression and anxiety.

“Animals and pets provide a sense of companionship and comfort,” said Mindy Altschul, licensed clinical social worker at Hackensack Meridian Health Carrier Clinic in Belle Mead, New Jersey. “Emotional support pets and animals can aid in addressing feelings of loneliness and isolation.”

Like ordinary pets, ESAs require regular attention, feeding and exercise. Providing these essentials may give individuals with mental health conditions a purpose and structured routine.

“The act of caregiving can provide a therapeutic effect that can assist in interrupting overthinking experienced with anxiety or depression,” Altschul continued. “The needs of the pet can serve as a focus outside of one's self.”

Social benefits of an ESA

Pet owners describe a strong connection with their animal companions. They often view pets as family members and sometimes prefer their company over humans. This bond can help fulfill the social need for affection, touch and comfort.

"Emotional support animals go beyond emotional support pets,” Altschul explained. “Carrier Clinic provides equine-assisted treatment that uses horses and other animals to teach anger management, conflict resolution, communication skills and problem-solving."

Research suggests equine-assisted therapy can develop self-regulation, reduce stress and increase self-esteem. One study surveyed the families of patients who received equine-assisted therapy and reported improvements in the patients’ moods, emotional regulation and social interactions.

These important skills can help individuals with mental and emotional disorders build and maintain healthy relationships with the people around them.

» COMPARE: Best ESA letter websites

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    What types of animals qualify as emotional support animals?

    Any domesticated animal can be an ESA, including dogs, cats, ferrets, rabbits, snakes, lizards, birds, miniature pigs and others.

    How does an animal become classified as an emotional support animal?

    For an animal to become an ESA, you must obtain a properly formatted prescription letter from a licensed mental health professional (LMHP).

    What is the process to get my pet certified as an emotional support animal?

    First, consult an LMHP and explain how you think an ESA could help your mental health condition. If the LMHP diagnoses you with an emotional or psychiatric disorder and recommends an ESA, request a prescription letter as proof.

    Bottom line

    ESAs provide support to people with mental health conditions. Their companionship may alleviate symptoms associated with depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder and other psychiatric or emotional disorders. They can also promote better physical health and improved relationships and social interactions.

    Article sources

    ConsumerAffairs writers primarily rely on government data, industry experts and original research from other reputable publications to inform their work. Specific sources for this article include:

    1. UWA Online, “Do Animals Have Feelings? Examining Empathy in Animals.” Accessed March 22, 2024.
    2. National Library of Medicine, “Dogs functionally respond to and use emotional information from human expressions.” Accessed March 22, 2024.
    3. National Library of Medicine, “Emotion Recognition in Cats.” Accessed March 22, 2024.
    4. ADA National Network, “Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals.” Accessed March 22, 2024.
    5. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “Assistance Animals.” Accessed March 22, 2024.
    6. National Library of Medicine, “The power of support from companion animals for people living with mental health problems: a systematic review and narrative synthesis of the evidence.” Accessed March 22, 2024.
    7. National Library of Medicine, “Ontological security and connectivity provided by pets: a study in the self-management of the everyday lives of people diagnosed with a long-term mental health condition.” Accessed March 22, 2024.
    8. Brill, “Potential Benefits of Canine Companionship for Military Veterans with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).” Accessed March 22, 2024.
    9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “How to Stay Healthy Around Pets and Other Animals.” Accessed March 22, 2024.
    10. UC Davis Health, “3 ways getting outside into nature helps improve your health.” Accessed March 22, 2024.
    11. National Library of Medicine, “Pilot Study of the Influence of Equine Assisted Therapy on Physiological and Behavioral Parameters Related to Welfare of Horses and Patients.” Accessed March 22, 2024.
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