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What’s an Emotional Support Animal?

Updated: Jun 6

What’s an Emotional Support Animal

1 in 5 Americans live with a mental health issue according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH). This amounts to over 58 million people who suffer from conditions like anxiety, depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Bipolar Disorders, etc. The severity of these mental health problems can greatly impact a person's everyday life. It’s no wonder that many are seeking ways to feel better and manage their symptoms and for some, an Emotional Support Animal (ESA) can help. This blog explores what ESAs are, their benefits, and how they differ from service animals.


What’s an Emotional Support Animal?

An Emotional Support Animal is a pet. They don’t require any training at all. Unlike service animals, which go through a lot of training and learn specific tasks to help a person with a disability, mental or physical. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): “Emotional support animals provide companionship, relieve loneliness, and sometimes help with depression, anxiety, and certain phobias, but do not have special training to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities”. An Emotional Support Animal’s display of affection and unwavering acceptance is how they make a difference in their person’s life. Their primary role is to offer emotional stability and companionship to their owners.


Which animals can be Emotional Support Animals?

Any domestic animal can qualify as an Emotional Support Animal. Unlike service animals that are restricted to dogs and occasionally miniature horses, an Emotional Support Animal can be a cat, a ferret, a pig, a chicken, or even a rat. Some of the most outrageous Emotional Support Animals that have made the news in the past few years have been kangaroos, bearded dragons, turkeys, marmosets, snakes, goldfish, and peacocks.


What are the benefits of an Emotional Support Animal?

Living with an Emotional Support animal can have many benefits. For someone who suffers from a mental disorder, that impact could be quite significant.

-   Stress management: The main function of an Emotional Support Animal is to provide comfort, reduce stress levels, and create a sense of calm. For people who suffer from anxiety and depression, an Emotional Support Animal can help reduce symptoms.

-   Companionship: For individuals who live alone or struggle with social interactions, Emotional Support Animals offer consistent companionship. This can help reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness, contributing to improved overall mental health.

-   Physical activity: Emotional Support Animals will also encourage physical activity and as many studies have shown, regular walks and overall exercise can improve physical health but also mental well-being.

-   Creates a routine: Caring for an animal requires a daily routine. For those who suffer from depression or anxiety, caring for an Emotional Support Animal and having a routine can provide structure and a sense of purpose. Getting out of bed to feed and walk a dog, for instance, can give someone a sense of responsibility and accomplishment.

-   Unconditional love: The unconditional love and affection provided by an Emotional Support Animal can have a profound impact on an individual’s emotional state. This bond can boost self-esteem and provide a sense of security.


Legal Protections and Differences from Service Animals

-   Public Access: With their specialized training, service animals are considered like any medical device that offers assistance to a person with a disability and therefore are allowed to go to any public place, even where pets aren’t allowed. Just like we wouldn’t consider asking someone to leave their cane, their wheelchair, or their oxygen tank at the door, a service dog will accompany their person wherever they need them. But this does not apply to Emotional Support Animals. Emotional Support Animals do not have public access rights. They cannot be taken places where pets aren’t allowed such as restaurants, stores, or public transportation.

-   Housing: The Fair Housing Act (FHA) prohibits discrimination in housing based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, family status, and disability. This means that if you have a disability, your landlord must make "reasonable accommodations" in their rules, policies, or services to allow you to have access, use, and enjoy your home. As part of those “reasonable accommodations” they must allow you to have an emotional support animal in their home, even if there are normally no-pet policies.

-   Air Travel: The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) previously allowed Emotional Support Animals to travel with their owners in an aircraft cabin. For a few years, no matter the species, all were protected. But too many unconventional animals were suddenly flying in cabins for free, and the airlines had no say in which ones could board or not. It didn’t take very long for the DOT's Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA)  to put more restrictions. Today, Emotional Support Animals are no longer protected under the ACAA and if some airlines still accept them, most only allow service dogs to fly for free in the cabin. So, if you have a mental disorder, you could bring a psychiatric service dog on a plane with you, but not your Emotional Support Animal unless you can find a particular airline that will still accept them.


How do you know if you need and Emotional Support Animal and if you qualify?

Just like a service animal, an Emotional Support Animal helps a person with a disability. That means that for your animal to qualify as an Emotional Support Animal, the very first condition, is that a mental health professional, such as a psychologist, psychiatrist, or therapist, has diagnosed you with a mental or emotional disability recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) and that the Emotional Support Animal provides essential support for their well-being. In other words, the presence of that animal must make a difference in your mental health. If you do not have a diagnosed disability, your animal will just be considered a pet.


What about certification?

Despite websites that offer certifications for Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals, certification is not required. There is no federal legal registry for Emotional Support Animals (or even service dogs), and most websites offering certification are businesses offering identification to whoever will send their dogs’ information.


There are so many great reasons to live with an animal whether we suffer from a mental disorder or not. When we hug our dog, we get a boost in oxytocin, the “feel-good hormone” and immediately feel less anxious or stressed. But for some of us, life can be extra challenging due to high levels of anxiety. Some might be in a constant state of high alert or feel isolated or disconnected from others. An Emotional Support Animal could offer unparalleled companionship, and emotional stability and make a significant difference.



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