Considering Emotional Support Animals? Here’s What You Need to Know

Everyone knows that pets make the best companions. From getting themselves out for exercise to enjoying daily life at home, owning a pet has a great many benefits for people. For some of us with mental or emotional conditions, there are also pets that can provide support to help deal with the challenges that come with a condition. These are known as emotional support animals, and they have been growing in popularity recently.

Are you considering one? Here’s everything you need to know about emotional support animals.

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What You Need to Know About Emotional Support Animals

What are emotional support animals?

An emotional support animal is an animal companion that provides some type of comfort to an individual with a mental illness. The animal is intended to provide companionship and support that will help alleviate at least one aspect of the condition.

Though dogs are most commonly associated with emotional support roles, many animal species such as cats, miniature horses, ferrets, peacocks, pigs, ducks, monkeys, turkeys, and many others can provide a level of comfort to those who truly need it.

To legally be considered an emotional support animal (ESA), the pet needs to be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional. A therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist must determine that the presence of the animal is needed for the mental health of the patient. To get official approval for an ESA, a licensed mental health professional must certify your emotional disability via a signed, dated letter on the physician’s letterhead, accompanied by the medical professional’s license number, date, and place of issue. You don’t need to register the animal with an organization, buy it a vest, or acquire other legal documentation. All you need is the letter from a mental health professional.

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The difference between service animals and emotional support animals

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service animals and emotional support animals differently. The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service animals as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” Such disabilities may be sensory, physical, intellectual, psychiatric, or mental in nature. Service dogs perform tasks including alerting a person about a sound, guiding a person along the street, pressing an elevator button, retrieving items, alerting others or standing guard if the individual is experiencing a seizure, or reminding the individual to take his or her medication.

Emotional support animals, on the other hand, do not require specialized training and are there to provide companionship aimed at alleviating distress or provide some other type of relief. Licensed medical professionals who recommend emotional support animals acknowledge that their patients could benefit from the companionship but are physically capable of performing daily tasks without assistance.

There are service dogs known as psychiatric service dogs that are trained extensively to work with people whose disability is due to mental illness. These dogs detect the beginning of psychiatric episodes and help ease their effects. Although this sounds similar to the role of an emotional support dog, the difference between a psychiatric service dog and an emotional support dog is again in the tasks performed by the dog and the training received to perform these tasks. If it is simply the dog’s presence that helps the person cope, then the dog does not qualify as a psychiatric service dog.

ESA owners do not receive the same accommodations as service animal owners. More on this later. 

What are the benefits?

Whether to relieve loneliness, depression, or anxiety, an ESA can play a critical role in improving the lives of afflicted individuals. Taking on a dependent animal will endow you with healthy responsibility that stops short of the commitment to a fellow human. An ESA provides comfort and, if necessary, distraction during times of emotional trial.

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  • Improved physical health. Studies have found that emotional support animals help to lower blood pressure, decrease respiration rates, and improve the ability to cope with pain. 
  • Lesser feelings of loneliness. Animals can provide companionship, which is especially important for people who live alone and experience symptoms of depression and anxiety.
  • Calms anxiety and eases depression. Emotional support animals increase dopamine and other neurochemicals associated with love and bonding. There are studies that show that dopamine (a neurotransmitter associated with feeling pleasure) production is boosted by looking into your pet’s eyes.
  • Unconditional love. An emotional support animal can provide a feeling of connectedness and unconditional love that people may struggle to receive from others. This can dramatically improve a person’s overall mental health and decrease the debilitating nature of their symptoms.
  • Reciprocated care. Not only do animals provide unconditional love and companionship, but they also require care and love in return, which can be emotionally rewarding.
  • Stabilizes intense emotions. When an individual is feeling particularly down, highly agitated, fearful, or anxious, the animal’s steady state, neutral but supportive stance, and affection on demand can help an individual divert their attention from the situation and focus on the animal.
  • Social support. If pets are psychologically close to their owner, they provide well-being benefits for the owner just like any other social companion can. 

How do you choose the right emotional support animal for you?

Variables such as lifestyle, household size, children, age, and funds are all vital questions someone should ask themselves before choosing an emotional support animal. Every animal is different, so finding the one that’s right for you is central to determine, for the well-being of both the owner and their four-legged (or two-legged for some) friend.

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For those whose calendar is more often than not overflowing with appointments, adopting a dog may not be the best choice. Dogs have far more energy than most other household pets, in-turn requiring significant attention and exercise. Puppies often cry at night and can have numerous accidents before they’re fully bathroom trained. 

Cats, on the other hand, are ideal for anyone seeking an animal that relies less on their owner as they’re incredibly hygienic and self-sufficient. They need scratching posts, though, or else they’ll ruin your walls and furniture.

Rabbits play with toys, use a litterbox, are extremely curious, and are also relatively laid-back. But they are known to nibble, so keeping all important documents out of reach is advised. Rabbits also require companionship from other rabbits aside from their owner, so it’s never recommended to just get one.

Pigs are also excellent ESAs, and contrary to popular belief, they’re naturally clean creatures. They’re easy to train because of their high intelligence (higher than that of dogs!), and they’re inexpensive to feed. They are surprisingly affectionate, well-behaved, social, friendly, curious, and playful. They love cuddling and adore being scratched and massaged. However, they require a certain amount of outdoor space. If size worries you, there are smaller species like the pot-bellied pig that only grows to the size of a small dog.

There are many other choices for ESAs out there. Researching the differences among them, as well as their breeds, should be any future pet owner’s first step. Proper nutritional information, attention requirements, and lifestyle considerations are equally as vital. 

What are your responsibilities?

Keep in mind that you are responsible for your ESA’s behavior. You’ll be responsible if your ESA mauls your neighbor or their pet. Similarly, if your miniature horse isn’t potty trained, don’t expect your landlord to cover the cost of cleaning the carpets. Vaccines must be up to date, the animal must not develop a stench so foul for neighbors.

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What are the laws I should be aware of?

While service animals are covered under the Americans With Disabilities Act, emotional support animals are under the Federal Fair Housing Act. Providers are required to make reasonable accommodations to allow individuals with mental conditions to keep an assistant animal in their home. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires housing providers to make exceptions to “no pets” policies.

Under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), ESAs are also permitted to fly with their handlers in an airplane cabin, free of charge. A wide variety of animals may be permitted to board flights as emotional support animals, although airlines are able to use their discretion in cases where animals are too heavy, large, or disrupting as well as those prohibited in other countries. While it’s certainly easier to accommodate a smaller ESA on your lap, you are also allowed to request a new seat with more room to fit a larger animal at your feet. All airlines will request to see your signed physician letter, but they also have their own set of requirements and rules, so check with them before bringing your ESA to the airport.

Controversies

The rising popularity of emotional support animals has increased the number of animals in public places where animals are normally not allowed. Several well-publicized incidents involving emotional support dogs causing injuries to passengers or airline employees on flights have led to controversies, ethical considerations, stricter policies for flights, and a growing movement to implement a national registry and certification process for emotional support animals. A number of online businesses have emerged, for example, with the promise to deliver a diagnosis and provide an ESA documentation letter. Many of these sites promise to provide a diagnosis and letter of documentation in under 24 hours for less than $100.

This type of abuse of the law has led to many airlines requiring that an ESA documentation letter be submitted in advance of the flight along with the name and contact information of the mental health professional who provided the diagnosis.

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