person holding brown tabby cat

Emotional Support Animals Demystified

If you’re like most people, you may be wondering what emotional support animals (ESAs) are. I will explain what they are and how they differ from other types of service animals. How they can help people with various mental health conditions.

People with a mental health diagnosis often find that having an emotional support animal helps them cope with their condition. Emotional support animals can help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. They can also help people feel more connected to the world around them and improve their overall quality of life.

dog holding flower

What are Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)?

ESAs or Emotional Support Animals are animals that support someone with a mental health disorder(s). Disorders such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, social anxiety, panic attacks, bipolar depression, and social phobia. They provide love, comfort, and companionship that their human may or may not get elsewhere.

A certified Mental Health Therapist has identified that an ESA may help this person and will issue a prescription.

Unlike Service Animals (SA) or Psychiatric Service Dogs (PSDs), ESAs are not trained to perform tasks. They just provide unconditional love and companionship. Most Service Animals and Psychiatric Service Animals receive pretty intensive training before starting their jobs. Training for ESAs beyond the basic commands is not needed.

Other differences between SA, PSD, and ESAs are that SA and PSDs are dogs. Whereas ESAs can be any type of animal that has a calm, soothing presence. ESAs have been dogs, cats, horses, hamsters, hedgehogs, pigs, ducks, various reptiles, etc.

white and brown long fur cat

Why are Emotional Support Animals important?

Over the years, I have heard many arguments that people are taking advantage of the system by having their non-ESA pet labeled as an ESA just so they can take their pet with them wherever they go. That emotional support animals are just pets and let’s get rid of the system entirely.

I will give you that some people are probably taking advantage of the system but for those who genuinely need an ESA’s support to help them deal with their mental health issues, having the ability to take that animal with them into situations that are known triggers can be a great comfort and help a bad situation not suck so much.

Our veterans coming home from years abroad fighting wars can have a hard time assimilating back into society, especially if they are dealing with PTSD. Whether or not they have a supportive family, knowing that they have the unconditional love of an animal can sometimes make all the difference in the world to them.

white and black hedgehog on persons hand

How to obtain an Emotional Support Animal

  • Talk to your mental health provider. If they assess you and determine that you could benefit from an ESA, they will write you a prescription. They may even be able to provide you with information on how to find one.
  • Use your current pet as an ESA. If you are interested, talk to your mental health provider.
  • Crowdsourcing – not everyone has the disposable income to purchase an ESA.
  • Adopt an animal from a local shelter. Look for animals about 1-year old that have a soothing, calm disposition.
  • Search social media – This can be tricky as there are all kinds of animal scams out there. If there is a particular type of animal you are looking for, find a reputable group on social media. This can also be a great way to find out more information about the animal of your choice.
selective focus photography of brown hamster
He’s so cute!

Tips for success in owning and training an ESA

  • All ESAs should be socialized. You don’t want your support animal to be biting, jumping, or begging food from everyone you come in contact with!
  • Dogs should receive basic obedience training.  You or by a professional dog trainer can provide the training.
  • Talk to your landlord before getting an emotional support animal. Landlords can’t deny you a support animal. They can ask for documentation from your doctor specifying that you need the ESA.
  • Be sure to keep your ESA well-groomed and vaccinations up-to-date.
  • When considering the different types of animals, consider what type of food they will eat and how expensive it is. What their life span will be, the possible cost of licensing, and veterinarian costs.
  • Lastly, remember that an emotional support animal is not a pet, it is a working animal.

Frequently Asked Questions

Pretty much any animal (or bird or reptile) can be an ESA if they can help alleviate some of your mental health issues such as anxiety or depression

Talk to your doctor about your mental health issues and ask if they think an emotional support animal would help. Your doctor can provide a referral to a local mental health provider if you don’t have one, and that person can work with you on the process

If you have mental health issues that have a big impact on your life, such as anxiety, depression, loneliness, PTSD, etc., an ESA might be able to provide another layer of support to your life and help your symptoms by providing unconditional love and companionship.

In January 2021, the Department of Transportation made a ruling that they will leave it up to the individual airlines to decide if ESAs can fly in the cabin with their owners. Without official ESA protection rules in place, most airlines are not allowing emotional support animals to fly in the cabin. If you are planning on traveling soon and would like to take your ESA, call your airline and ask about their particular rules.

An ESA letter is a document signed by a licensed mental health professional in your state that acts as proof of a person’s need to have an ESA to help with their disability. Most landlords will request to see a copy of this letter.

The last thing you need to know about ESAs

I have been researching the possibility of using an emotional support animal for our son. He received a tracheostomy and a ventilator this year for non-COVID related reasons. Although he is non-verbal, we are pretty sure he is experiencing depression and possibly anxiety because of it. I am not sure yet if this is something that we will continue to pursue or not.

If you experience anxiety or depression or other mental health disorders, a loving animal might help with your symptoms. Reach out to your doctor and ask for their support. I wish you the best of luck!

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