A Guide to Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)

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The bond between humans and animals is something quite special. While animals think, behave and communicate differently to humans, they can also surprise us with their ability to connect with us at an emotional level.

Animals are well known for having a positive effect on mental health. For people who struggle with physical or mental health conditions that impact their ability to function on a day-to-day basis,  an emotional support animal (or ESA) can be a great source of support.

What Is an Emotional Support Animal?

By definition, emotional support animals are prescribed by qualified and licensed healthcare professionals to provide companionship and comfort to a person with a specific health condition affecting their mental and emotional well-being, including:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Learning disabilities
  • Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Owners cannot simply decide that their animal is an emotional support animal. For an animal to be legally considered an ESA, they must also obtain a legally-enforceable document in the form of a letter from the prescribing healthcare professional who must also decide whether an ESA is beneficial.

Is an Emotional Support Animal Right for Me?

While there are no official rules surrounding suitability for emotional support animals, a key deciding factor is simply whether a person would benefit from having one. If you are considering getting an emotional support animal, beware of sites promising easy ways to acquire an ESA, as they are likely to be scams. 

The only way to get authentic certification for an emotional support animal is via a licensed and qualified healthcare professional, who can offer advice and guidance. While discussing this with your doctor or health practitioner, it is also important to discuss the animal’s care needs as well as your own. 

Taking Care of Each Other

While ESAs can be highly sensitive to the needs of their owners, this same level of emotional intelligence may also make the animal vulnerable to stress. For this reason, when deciding whether or not an ESA would be of benefit, it’s important to see the relationship between animal and human as a two-way street.

Caring for an animal can be hard work, so it is worth discussing with your doctor or mental health care provider whether you are prepared to take care of an animal long term, or whether alternatives such as volunteering at a shelter might be more suitable.

How Animals Can Benefit Mental Health

Animals increase oxytocin (the hormone associated with bonding), and offer a boost to physical health, especially in the case of animals requiring regular outdoor exercise, such as dogs or horses. ESAs are not considered pets, as pets do not necessarily have a therapeutic effect on their owners, nor is this considered their “job”.

Caring for an emotional support animal also offers a sense of structure and purpose to the lives of people who are struggling with their mental and emotional health. For some developmental disabilities such as autism, emotional support animals can also be especially beneficial in helping to reduce feelings of isolation and social anxiety.

What Kind of Animals Are ESAs?

You may have heard of more exotic or unusual species of animal such as peacocks or being labeled as ESAs, but this is not necessarily true, especially in the case of animals who have not been prescribed by a qualified healthcare practitioner. The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) defines emotional support animals as dogs and miniature horses (this is mainly due to their size and ability to help with mobility-related tasks.

In theory, any domestic animal  (for example dogs, cats, rabbits, rats, etc.) may be considered an ESA, but in addition to being certified by a medical professional the owner must also be able to care for them at home and manage them in public without creating disruption to others.

Therapy Animals, Service Animals and ESAs: What’s the Difference?

While emotional support animals are intended to provide companionship, they do not receive the same level of specialized training that service animals do. Service animals are dedicated to assisting people with disabilities. Therapy animals trained to offer emotional support to groups in places such as nursing homes, under invitation by management.

Service dogs are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, meaning that while service dogs can accompany their owners to all public spaces, therapy animals and ESAs are not. That said, ESAs are covered by the Fair Housing Act, which offers owners exemption from pet fees or restrictions, so long as they have an ESA letter from a licensed healthcare professional.