You probably don’t need convincing that pets are incredible, but emotional support pets are especially incredible. Not only do they provide all the warm-and-fuzzy benefits that regular pets provide, but they can help people recover from and manage various issues.
What is an emotional support pet?
Have you ever noticed a mood boost after hugging your dog? That’s basically how emotional support animals work, but their benefits are slightly more targeted.
An emotional support animal helps alleviate symptoms of a mental or physical disability. In order for a pet to become an emotional support animal (ESA), the Americans with Disabilities Act states that the pet must provide comfort, companionship and relief to help their owner accomplish “one or more major life activities.”
The major life activity is where definitions loosen. The act specifically mentions the following as major life activities:
“Caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.”
You may also be wondering who could benefit from an emotional support animal. Anyone could benefit from the companionship these pets provide, but they are most often used for people suffering from addiction, PTSD, anxiety and autism.
How emotional support animals help
Anxiety and depression are two common disorders that emotional support animals can provide relief for. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would dispute the fact that pets can make you happy. Pets, especially dogs, can lower stress levels and blood pressure. Are there really any downsides?
Let’s take a look at the research:
- Depression – A 2009 Psychogeriatrics study found that visits from a pet can help lower depression rates in long-term care patients.
- Stress – A 1991 APA study found that dogs helped lower autonomic stress in women.
- Blood pressure – A 2001 Psychosomatic Medicine study found that people with pets had significantly lower blood pressure than people who didn’t have pets.
- Autism – A survey of families with an autistic child published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing found that of families with animals, 94 percent said their autistic child bonded strongly with the pet. Even 7 out of 10 families without pets said their autistic child enjoyed interacting with dogs.
What kind of animals qualify as emotional support pets?
Dogs are most commonly used as emotional support pets, but some breeds of cat also work well. In truth, there are no set rules about what type of animal can be an ESA, but you should choose wisely.
First, it may be difficult to certify a less common pet as an emotional support animal. Second, it will most definitely be more difficult to bring your emotional support animal to a public place if it’s anything other than a cat or dog. For example, think about bringing a rat ESA to a museum. Even if they allow support animals, they may take issue with an uncommon pet like a rat.
Benefits of getting an emotional support pet over a standard pet
We’ve already established that all pets are incredible in their own right, but one of the things that makes support pets so extra incredible is that you can take them places you may not be able to take your non-ESA pet.
- Housing – The Fair Housing Act of 1988 mandates that apartments and housing communities that don’t otherwise allow pets must make an exception for emotional support pets. This act also frees you from having to pay any deposit or fee for your service pet.
- Flights – The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) allows you to bring your emotional support animal in the cabin with you and you won’t even have to pay a fee.
Difference between an emotional support dog and a service dog
Some people mistakenly think that they can bring their emotional support animal anywhere. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. People often confuse ESAs with therapy or service animals. You can take therapy animals to most public places, but you cannot take support animals everywhere with you (unless the business specifically allows it).
Therapy animals help people who struggle to accomplish day-to-day activities. A therapy pet isn’t designated to one specific owner. Instead, they help each patient for the short time that they’re needed and then move on to the next.
You’ve probably seen service dogs in action or training (or both). Service dogs do stay with one owner and help that person accomplish very specific functions. Someone who uses a service dog may have trouble getting around without one. A seeing-eye-dog is an example of a service dog, but it’s not the only one. Service dogs can also help someone with mobility impairment, diabetes, PTSD or seizures. A service dog must undergo rigorous training before it can work with an owner. This is why service dogs are allowed in most public places. Emotional support animals do require some training, but it’s nowhere near the level of training that service animals undergo.
Can you have more than one support animal?
Yes! You can have two or more emotional support animals, but you should consider the logistics before doing so. For one, you’ll have to feed and care for more animals. But also, you may run into trouble taking multiple support animals to a new apartment or on a plane. The laws protect your right to have a service animal, but they don’t state that planes and apartment complexes must accommodate more than one per person.
How do I get an emotional support animal?
Okay, so you’re thoroughly convinced of the incredible nature of an ESA. Now, all you have to do is get one. But not so fast. There are a few steps you have to take before you hop on a plane with your new support pooch.
First, you have to visit your doctor and discuss your reasons for wanting a support dog. If you’ve already been diagnosed with a mental or physical illness, this process may be easier.
Next, get a letter from your doctor.
If you have trouble getting a letter from your doctor, there are online services that will evaluate your case and potentially approve your request for an ESA letter.
Ready for more steps? Well, you’re in for a disappointment because that’s really all you need.
ESA pets don’t need to be certified or undergo any special training aside from how to live peacefully among people and other animals in public.
Is an emotional support animal right for me?
Although there are amazing benefits to pet ownership, it isn’t right for everyone. Pets come with responsibilities, and you’ll need to be ready and willing to handle them.
If you get a dog, you’ll need a yard or time to walk him daily. You’ll need to spend a reasonable amount of time at home or arrange for a dog walker, so your dog can exercise and do his business. If you get a cat, you’ll need to change the litter box regularly. And regardless of what type of animal you get, you’ll need to feed it and provide water and attention daily.
In addition to the daily responsibilities, understand that you’re making a commitment when you get an animal. This is not a temporary situation. You are committing to being responsible for this animal for the duration of its life.
How to choose the right pet for emotional support
Generally speaking, the pet you have the strongest connection with will provide the greatest support for you. Think about your lifestyle when choosing an animal. Although more research has been done on the emotional benefits of dogs, a cat may be a better fit if you tend to work long hours and can’t manage walks.
The following breeds are popular choices for emotional support dogs:
- King Charles Spaniels – These cuddly dogs are relatively easy to train and get along great with kids.
- Labrador retrievers – This breed is notorious for being sweet and extremely loyal, but keep their size in mind when getting a lab for support.
- Golden Retrievers – Like labs, golden retrievers have an amazing reputation for being sweethearts. These are great family or support animals.
- Poodles – Poodles have a reputation for being a smart breed that you can train to do many things. They’re also cuddly and hypoallergenic.
- Yorkshire terriers – If you’re looking for a toy breed, you may want to consider a Yorkie. These small dogs have big hearts, love cuddling and are extremely loyal to their owners.
- Pugs – The pug is another small breed that works very well as an emotional support animal. One of the benefits of having a small ESA is that it’s easy to take with you on-the-go.
If you’ve never had a pet and are on the fence about getting one, consider fostering with your local animal shelter. Through fostering, you’ll find out exactly what it’s like to care for a pet without having to commit to a lifetime. If you love the experience, maybe it’s time to get an emotional support pet of your own.
Even if you can’t get an ESA letter, you may still benefit from getting a pet. All pets are incredible in their own right. ESA pets simply come with a few more benefits.
Trevor McDonald is a freelance content writer and self-proclaimed “Dog Dad”. He’s written a variety of education, travel, health, and lifestyle articles for many different companies and is currently writing for Sober Nation. In his free time, you can find him running with his dog Charlie, playing his guitar or outside enjoying about any type of fitness activity imaginable.