From miniature pigs to ducks to marmosets, emotional support animals have become an accepted part of human society in the 21st century. Just a few decades ago, the term “emotional support animal” did not exist. Instead, it was common to see disabled individuals relying on assistant dogs (usually Labrador retrievers) to help them walk, see, and perform certain daily tasks.
During the early 2000s, therapists began earnestly investigating the benefits of an emotional support animal. Dr. Sabrina Schuck of UC Irvine pioneered the use of dogs to help children with ADHD learn to focus while completing school work. In addition, researchers took note of the therapeutic interactions between dogs, cats, and other animals and people with autism spectrum disorders. They found pets not only improve social behavior among those with ASD but also reduced their tendency to become self-absorbed and withdrawn.
Following a flood of empirical studies involving the psychological benefits of animals, the demand for emotional support animals also rose dramatically. In 2011, there were approximately 2400 emotional support and service animals registered with the National Service Animal Registry. By 2019, that number rose to 200,000. Factor in the isolation and fear caused by the COVID pandemic, and that number has likely exponentially increased since 2020.
Do Emotional Support Animals Help People with Mental Illness Feel Better?
If you have ever rolled your eyes after reading a news article about someone having an emotional support turtle, peacock, or spider (not kidding about the spider–read about it here), you might want to consider the results of ongoing research regarding the benefits of emotional support animals (ESAs).
A recent qualitative study involving over 100 adults with major depression and anxiety found that there are six themes encompassing the benefits of pets:
- Reduced panic attacks and anxiety symptoms
- Elevated mood
- Increased motivation to complete daily tasks
- Increased social connections that help reduce loneliness
- Reduced risk behaviors (self-harm, substance abuse, gambling, etc)
- Improved the person’s ability to cope with their mental illness
Touching and petting their animal lowered physical symptoms of anxiety and depression. Paying attention to their animal improved their mood, stopped them from ruminating about negative thoughts, and promoted mindfulness of the moment.
At the same time, though, the study’s authors cautioned people from assuming ESAs can “treat” or resolve mental health issues. Only professional counseling, psychotherapy, and medication can actually treat and possibly resolve some mental illnesses. Emotional support animals should be viewed as having the potential for easing symptoms of a mental illness and helping the person maintain a higher quality of life.
A few studies indicate emotional support dogs may increase oxytocin levels in some people, but not all ESA dog owners. What’s interesting about one study is that the increase of oxytocin in dogs who interacted with humans was much less pronounced!
What Exactly is an Emotional Support Animal? Can Any Animal be an Emotional Support Animal?
Emotional support animals do just what their title implies–they provide emotional support for people with mental health problems. Owners of ESAs say that having the animal with them at all times calms anxiety, makes them feel less depressed, gives meaning to their lives, and provides an intermediary to stop them from focusing on negative thoughts. Unlike service animals, which go through rigorous training and behavior programs, ESAs are not trained to physically assist their owners. In fact, certain laws have passed that mandate federal, state, and local governments to recognize ESAs as any animal providing a person with comfort and support through affection, companionship, and unconditional love.
The American Disabilities Act (ADA) does not consider ESAs as “service” animals. The ADA states that tasks performed by service animals must relate directly to a person’s disability and that physician letters do not make an ESA a qualified service animal.
What Is a Licensed ESA?
While an emotional support animal is not licensed, the owner of an ESA must obtain certification of their mental or emotional disability from a psychiatrist or a psychologist. This certification qualifies individuals to bring their ESA with them when they enter public buildings, airplanes, cruise ships, and other such places.
The U.S. Department of Transportation has enacted a rule involving airline passengers that states the licensed mental health professional who signs off on certifying eligibility for an ESA must be currently treating the passenger. In addition, airlines do not have to accept certificates more than a year old.
What Mental Health Issues May Qualify Someone to Own an ESA?
Mental and cognitive disorders that may qualify adults and children for an ESA include but are not limited to:
- Major/chronic depression and anxiety/panic disorders
- Attention deficit disorder (ADD/ADHD)
- Bipolar disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Substance or behavioral addictions
- Learning disorders
- Mild to moderate dementia/Alzheimer’s disease
ESAs help individuals with depressive disorders feel more motivated to get out of bed in the morning. The unconditional love offered by pets helps depressed people feel a stronger sense of responsibility to their ESAs and to themselves. People with panic disorder say that their emotional support animal distracts them from obsessing over fears of losing control, dying, and devolving into full-blown panic attacks. Some studies indicate that people with Alzheimer’s who live with an ESA or are visited by dogs or other animals in their nursing home may experience improved mood and fewer episodes of anger and aggression. In fact, doctors who are proponents of ESAs recommend emotional support animals as a way to keep someone with mental health issues more stable and balanced emotionally and functionally.
What Should You Consider If You Want to Get an Emotional Support Animal?
The benefits of an ESA have been mostly covered in this article. If you have a qualifying mental health problem that can be certified by your psychologist or psychiatrist, then you should be eligible to take a dog or cat ESA just about anywhere you wish to go. However, be aware of limitations on taking an unconventional ESA to certain places. Animals like roosters, monkeys, goats, and other creatures that can abruptly defecate, bite, make a lot of noise, or scare people are not recommended as an emotional support animal–unless you plan on leaving the ESA at home when you travel via airplane, bus, or ship.
Consider the following disadvantages to getting an ESA before making a decision:
- The responsibility of owning a pet (feeding, walking, vet visits, time consumption)
- Basic health care (brushing, trimming hair and nails, bathing, flea/worm/tick preventatives)
- Expenses (food, healthcare, unexpected vet visits, pet supplies, treats, leashes, beds, etc)
- Understanding your ESA may live as long as 20 years (birds live three times that long!)
Also, think about the severity of your mental health issue. Severely depressed individuals may be unable to provide the kind of care and attention an emotional support animal needs. Some people with PTSD or bipolar disorder may not have progressed enough in their treatment yet to handle a pet without experiencing excessive impatience or irritability. Talk to your doctor before getting an ESA to receive professional advice about where you are in your treatment plan and if now is the best time to adopt an emotional support animal.
One final note— emotional support animals cannot “cure” a mental illness. They are meant to support you by helping you feel calmer and more centered, and by giving you a greater sense of purpose and fulfillment.