Emotional Support Animals: A Different Kind of Help and Therapy

person with dog sitting on Grand Canyon cliff

For those who are pet lovers, our animal babies are our best friends, our great support system, our family. Nevertheless, some of these furry friends do not act as pets but have a much important role: being Emotional Support Animals.

Let us dive deeper into what are these Emotional Support Animals and how do they work.

What are the Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)?

As the term suggests, Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) are animal companions that offer some type of therapeutic benefit to an individual with some form of disability or illness. The animal is intended to provide companionship and support that will assist in alleviating at least one aspect of the disability.

For one to own an ESA, they must be legally prescribed by a licensed mental health professional like a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist.

Dogs and cats are the most common types of emotional support animals, but there are also other types of animals that serve as ESAs which include miniature horses, birds, reptiles, and others based on the practicality and certain guidelines in the particular country and area.

There is no special training required for ESAs, and should you already have a pet, you can get them certified as an ESA based on a prescription from a mental health professional. 

Difference between Emotional Support Animals (ESAs), Service Animals and Therapy Animals

Now, there would be some questions relating to this, like so are Emotional Support Animals the same as Service Animals or even Therapy Animals? Each of them has a different role, and many terms can be confusing but they aren’t interchangeable.

emotional support animals

It is also important to note that emotional support animals and psychiatric service animals are not the same things. Where an emotional support animal may provide benefits to people with mental illness, psychiatric service animals are specially trained to perform specific tasks for people with psychiatric conditions. This might include reminding the individual to take their medications or stop someone from engaging in self-harm.

A. Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)

ESAs (typically but not limited to a dog or cat, inclusive of other species) provide comfort and alleviate symptoms of their person’s disability just by their presence, companionship, and providing cuddles or affection. They provide emotional support and comfort to individuals with psychiatric disabilities and other mental impairments. 

Providing comfort is not a trained behavior and, therefore, the animal is not considered an assistance (service) dog and are not protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

B. Service Animals

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service animals as any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities – including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Service animals are protected under the ADA. 

These tasks can include things like:

  • Pulling a wheelchair, 
  • Guiding a person who is visually impaired/ blind, 
  • Alerting someone with diabetes that their blood sugar levels have dropped, 
  • Alerting a person who is having a seizure,
  • Calming a person who suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and many more.

C. Therapy & Comfort Animals

Both types of animals, typically dogs, work in situations where stress levels are high. They are a type of animal-assisted intervention where there is a “goal-directed intervention” in which an animal meeting specific criteria is an integral part of the treatment process.

therapy dogs

Therapy animals provide people with healing contact, typically in an institutional or clinical setting, to improve their physical, social, emotional, or cognitive functioning. They are usually a person’s own pet dog that the person has had qualified (through a therapy dog organization) to make visits to hospitals, schools, nursing homes, etc.

Comfort animals work during active crises. They offer a calming distraction to those impacted in an active disaster or emergency. 

While these types of animals receive extensive training and may interact with all sorts of people, including an individual with a disability, they are not trained to perform a specific task for an individual with a disability.

 Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)Service AnimalsTherapy and Comfort Animals
Specialized and intensively trained for a specific task or behavior to assist a person with a disabilityNoYesNo
Provides emotional support and comfort to peopleYesNoYes
The primary role is to be a companion and provide emotional support   YesNoNo
In public, displays very good behavior and is comfortable with a variety  of people, situations, and experiencesNoYesYes
Is allowed to fly in the cabin of a planeYes**Need documentation and based on airline allowances.Yes**Need documentation and based on airline allowances.No
May live with a person with a disability even in housing with a no pet policyYesYesNo
Requires registration or certificationNot necessarily needed, but can be obtained based on conditions in line with the Americans with Disabilities Act (for Service Dogs) and for ESAs, certain documents in searching for housing, or when taking your ESA on a flight.No
Is protected by the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) to bring their dog into public places where pet dogs are NOT allowed (i.e. grocery store, restaurant, etc.)  NoYesNo

 

Benefits of an Emotional Support Animal (ESA)

So how do Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) affect oneself that require companionship? Research has long supported the idea that animals can provide significant mental health benefits. One research review found that owning a pet has positive effects on mental health by fostering emotional connectivity and helping people manage in times of crisis.

Benefits of having an ESA include:

  • Lowering anxiety and feelings of loneliness,
  • Improved physical health by normalizing heart rate and blood pressure,
  • Enhancing social engagement and interaction, 
  • Decreased symptoms of the diagnosed illness,
  • Reducing pain, stress, depression
  • Increased reciprocal care and love
  • Providing an emotional outlet and a sense of purpose

As the benefits of using ESA’s grow, doctors are now expanding their patients to include those that suffer from the following:

  • PTSD
  • Mild to severe anxiety
  • Agoraphobia (fear of being outside of the home)
  • Aerophobia (fear of flying)
  • Depression
  • General Anxiety Disorder
  • Stress-induced situations
  • Social shyness

Emotional support animals have also largely assisted people in feeling less isolated during the quarantine and social distancing period. People in quarantine recognize the need for companionship, even if the companion is furry. These are the companions that help people cope with the destruction of routine and the threat of COVID-19.  

The joy that comes from loving a pet greatly outweighs the isolation brought on by COVID-19. While talking to someone on the phone or video-chatting a loved one can help you feel less secluded, having an animal physically present can provide an extra emotional boost. 

How do you get an Emotional Support Animal (ESA)?

Usually, Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) are prescribed by a licensed healthcare professional or mental health professional under the law. Licensed health care professionals include physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, licensed clinical social workers, nurses, nurse practitioners, physician’s assistants, licensed counselors, and other licensed professionals.

While any pet can be registered as an ESA, most of them are put through formal training with a psychologist, psychiatrist, or therapist. These animals understand the triggers their owners go through and are there to help in case of an emergency. Some owners already have dogs that they’ve emotionally bonded to, hence their want and need to register their pet as an ESA.

Individuals with ESAs are afforded some additional rights, such as the ability to live in otherwise non-pet-friendly housing under the Fair Housing Act. Additionally, the Air Carrier Access Act allows both service animals and ESAs to accompany their owners in the cabin of an aircraft during flights. Emotional support animals provide a valuable service to those who need it but misrepresenting a pet as an ESA is both unethical and illegal in some states.

Please note that emotional support dogs are currently not recognized as assistance dogs and will need to comply with the standard requirements and procedures for the import of dogs – Animal & Veterinary Service Singapore.

Resources:

1. FAQs on Emotional Support Animals

2. Emotional support animals can endanger the public and make life harder for people like me who rely on service dogs

3. The Health and Mood-Boosting Benefits of Pets

4. FAQ and Guides

5. Frequently Asked Questions about Service Animals and the ADA

6. Emotional Support Dog Requirements

7. Owning An ESA Is A Long-Term Commitment – Here’s Why

8. What Is an Emotional Support Animal?

9. What Do Emotional Support Animals Do Exactly? For Those in Need, A Lot

10. Everything You Need to Know About Emotional Support Animals

11. What Kind of Animals Can be Emotional Support Animals

12. Service Animal or Emotional Support Animal: What’s the Difference?

13. The Difference Between a Service Dog, Therapy Dog & Emotional Support Dog

14. Do I Need an ESA Letter or a Service Dog Certification?

15. How do I get an emotional support animal?

16. What Is the Difference Between an Emotional Support Animal, Therapy Dog and Service Dog?

17. Confirming the benefits of emotional support animals

18. Can an Emotional Support Animal (ESA) Help with my Anxiety?

19. Mental Health Benefits of an Emotional Support Animal

20. How emotional support animals benefit mental health and wellness

21. 5 Benefits of Having an Emotional Support Animal

22. Little-Known Benefits of Emotional Support Animals