support dog

Humans have had special relationships with animals since ancient times. Dogs, cats and many other species have been by our sides during good and bad, work and play. For people with emotional or mental health issues, these bonds can be even stronger. The purpose of an authorized emotional support animal (ESA) is to provide that vital presence that enables individuals with these issues to function normally on a daily basis.

How does an animal become an ESA?

An ESA can be a dog, cat, bird or reptile. ESAs are prescribed to people who are diagnosed with a disabling mental or emotional illness such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, phobias or depression. For an animal to legally be considered an ESA, a psychiatrist, psychologist or therapist must determine that the person needs the animal to be at their side in order to maintain their mental health. The animal can be of any breed or age.

What do ESAs do?

Emotional support animals furnish their humans with a number of important benefits. These include the following:

  • Providing comfort.
  • Reducing isolation.
  • Relieving anxiety.
  • Giving structure.

In contrast to service animals like guide dogs that are trained to perform a specific function for their disabled handler, ESAs are not allowed to accompany their owners into public places like supermarkets and malls. ESAs differ from psychiatric service dogs, who receive extensive training to help their handlers with specific, mental illness-related conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, often detecting psychiatric events in their initial stages and helping their handler to minimize the effects. While service animals are trained to do particular jobs to assist their handler with mental illness, ESAs do their magic simply through their presence and are not recognized as service animals by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

What can an ESA give to their human companion?

Even though ESAs are not afforded all of the privileges that service animals receive, they can bestow numerous gifts to their human companions. They include the following:

  • Stimulating the production of neurotransmitters that lead to happiness. Perhaps the most well-known of these chemicals is dopamine, which is associated with love, ecstasy and bonding. When these positive emotions increase, depression and loneliness recede.
  • Giving comfort. For many people, the simple act of stroking an animal’s fur or gazing into their eyes can grant grounding and solace that helps to diminish symptoms of loneliness, anxiety and social awkwardness. ESAs offer nonjudgmental support and often act as trusted confidantes for individuals who have minimal human contact.
  • Providing an outlet for physical activity and structure. Being responsible for the care of an animal helps to instill a sense of accountability. There are many times when a person may feel too depressed or overwhelmed to get out of bed for their own well-being yet will do so for their ESA’s. Routine activities such as walks and feeding frequently distract handlers from dwelling on their symptoms or on traumatic events. Having an ESA in their lives brings humor and love as well as structure.
  • Enhanced social interactions. As any pet owner will tell you, animals are conversation starters. When someone is accompanied by their ESA, they may find that they have more positive interactions with friends, family members and the general public. As a result, the owner may gain in self-esteem and confidence, overcoming shyness and anxiety.
  • Increased sense of purpose. As owners begin to love and care for their ESA, their perceptions of life’s purpose are often radically changed for the better. Meeting their animal’s daily needs and offering love and protection help handlers to shift away from a dark or pessimistic outlook.
  • Work in tandem with other mental health treatment modalities. In order to relieve the symptoms of mental or emotional distress, clinicians often recommend a number of strategies that can work in concert to improve the patient’s quality of life. For instance, a professional may urge a person to practice mindfulness meditation, eat nourishing foods and take medications or supplements while also introducing an ESA into their lives. All of these strategies can combine holistically to provide the person with general healing and support.
  • Can help a broad spectrum of people. Emotional support animals can make tangible differences in the lives of numerous patients. These include kids and teens who are at risk of or are experiencing depression, psychiatric patients, prison inmates, soldiers and war veterans and college students.

Of course, having an ESA is not for everyone. Caring for animals can represent a financial burden, and chances are good that the owner will outlive their special pet.

Regardless of age or species, having an animal in your life can bring many benefits. Unconditional love, laughter, joy and comfort are just a few of the most important. If you believe that the quality of life for you or someone you love could be enhanced by having an ESA as a companion, talk to your therapist or psychologist today. You’ll be glad you did.