You’ve heard the saying, “A dog is man’s best friend.”
But can dogs also serve a role that goes beyond companionship, to actually providing emotional support and wellbeing to those that suffer from mental health concerns like anxiety and depression?
And what about other loyal pets, like cats, birds, or (gasp!) even snakes?
In this article, we’ll explore the role of support animals and how they differ from the more well-known service animals.
An emotional support animal – or ESA – serves as a companion and provides assistance to a person with an emotional or psychological disorder, such as PTSD, anxiety, or depression.
Unlike service animals – which can only be dogs – emotional support animals can be any domesticated animal. Their role is to provide comfort and support, reduce the symptoms of the mental or emotional disorder their owner suffers from, and help improve their general wellbeing.
Those of us who are pet owners know that animals are special – they have a way of loving us unconditionally and without judgment that humans often can’t match.
And this unconditional, nonjudgmental support can prove quite effective in helping those of us with psychological disorders when we most need it.
An emotional support animal can:
When we’re feeling upset, anxious, or depressed, it’s often easy to get caught up in our emotions. Being near to and petting or cuddling an animal can serve as a calming, grounding influence when our emotions start to feel out of control.
The love and affection provided by animals can lift our moods and make us feel happier.
Animals need regular care – food, exercise, medical attention – and providing that care helps bring structure to those who may be feeling unfocused or lacking in direction. It can also help provide a sense of purpose and help people feel needed.
There’s a reason that pet ownership skyrocketed during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Forced into isolation, humans turned to their canine and feline friends to provide the social interaction they lacked.
Studies done in the UK on the effects of human-animal interactions during lockdowns showed the benefits of having a pet during this time. Results showed that having an animal companion helped mitigate mental health symptoms, with 87% of respondents stating their animals helped them cope emotionally, and 73% saying their animal helped keep them fit and active.
Though support animals are not a treatment for emotional disorders, they can be used in conjunction with other treatments.
The feel-good effects of a support animal can help us turn our negative thought patterns into realistic ones – a key component of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Caring for and playing with our pets helps keep us grounded in the present moment and notice our emotions – main features of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).
It’s not enough to lovingly refer to Fido as your emotional support animal. A licensed mental health professional (LMHP) must deem that you qualify and that your pet helps you cope with your disorder(s). Then, they must certify this in a signed, written statement.
Because emotional support animals are not recognized as service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act, they have limited federal protections – they qualify for no-pet housing and air travel, but are not allowed in other public spaces (as specified by local ordinance).
The support animal’s main role is to offer emotional support and companionship, while service animals are trained to provide specific tasks. This includes psychiatric service dogs, which are trained to provide tasks for mental disabilities (e.g., getting medication, alerting before seizures), just like service dogs are trained for tasks related to physical disabilities (e.g., guide dogs).
If you have a qualifying condition, you may benefit from an emotional support animal. Talk to your provider about whether this is the right option for you.
If you or someone you know is experiencing emotional distressor in crisis, help is available. Please contact your healthcare provider, visit your nearest emergency room, or call 988.