How Does an Emotional Support Animal Help You Feel Better?

Photo by Manuel Meza on Unsplash

Did you know, roughly around one in four adults in the USA have a mental illness or emotional condition, and one in 25 has a mental condition so serious that it interferes with their daily lives? From anxiety and depression to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and more, there are almost 50 million adults in America dealing with these conditions day in, day out.

While therapy or medications remain popular treatment options for mental illnesses, many people are turning to more holistic therapies for help. Among them is perhaps the cuddliest option of all: emotional support animals. But what do these furry friends do, and how can they help people to feel better? Read on to find out.

What Exactly is an ESA, and How Do I Get One?

Let’s begin by getting clear on what an emotional support animal actually is. An emotional support animal, or ESA for short, is a pet that supports its owner’s emotional wellbeing and helps to alleviate the symptoms of mental illnesses. They do this not through any special training, but by being a source of love, companionship, and affection.

Any kind of domesticated animal can become an ESA, as long as they are a benefit to the owner’s mental health, can behave properly in public, and do not pose a threat to anyone. Dogs, cats, miniature horses, birds, and even rabbits all make popular ESAs; however, most airlines and housing generally want just cats and dogs.

The only way to get an emotional support animal is to be prescribed one by a licensed mental health professional. After a consultation, the mental health professional will write you an ESA letter, which will state that you have been diagnosed with a mental health condition and the animal is needed for your ongoing treatment. Don’t be tricked by online services that offer to register your animal or give you a letter with no consultation—these are scams! You will need a legitimate emotional support animal registration letter (they last for a year) to bring your ESA into certain places, so make sure you get a valid one, and keep it safe.

Emotional support animals are a type of assistance animal and service animals (like guide dogs). However, under the law, these three types of animals are treated differently, with service dogs being given the most legal protection. We go into more detail about where you can and can’t take your ESA below.

The Science Behind How an ESA Helps

Any animal-lover can tell you how petting an animal makes them feel happy and relaxed, but what exactly is the scientific reason for this? A lot of scientists have looked into this question, and many, including a study from the University of Missouri-Columbia, suggest that petting an animal releases a feel-good cocktail of hormones into the brain, including prolactin, serotonin, and oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone”. Being around dogs also inhibits the stress hormone cortisol. What’s even cuter is that the same reaction is also happening in the dog too!

An ESA is a Source of Unconditional Love and Support

For some people with mental illnesses, it can be easy to feel lonely and isolated, and difficult to make meaningful relationships. An emotional support animal is a source of unconditional love and support—they don’t care if you couldn’t face taking a shower today, or if you’re feeling worried, useless, or afraid. For many people, this love and comfort helps to get them through the day, and can even give them the confidence to get out and meet new people, helping to break the cycle of isolation.

ESAs Can Keep You Calm at Home...

Many people with mental illnesses describe how it is at home that they become the most lonely or worried, especially if they live alone, and how an emotional support animal can help to alleviate these feelings. These benefits are not only limited to people who own their own homes; thanks to government legislation, people living in rented accommodation can also keep ESAs. The Fair Housing Act protects the rights of people with ESAs to keep them in their home, even where pets are not permitted, as long as they have a valid ESA letter.

...And on the Move!

Flying can be a stressful experience at the best of times, but for people with all sorts of mental illnesses or emotional conditions it can simply be a step too far. Luckily, emotional support animals can help here too, by being a calm, dependable presence, and for many people, having an ESA has allowed them to make journeys that they otherwise would not have been able to. The rights of people flying with ESAs are protected by the Air Carriers Access Act (ACAA), which allows them to travel alongside their owners in the cabin, even on airlines that forbid pets. Again, this is subject to having a valid ESA letter, and some airlines restrict ESAs to dogs and cats.

An ESA Teaches You Responsibility and Helps You to Get into a Healthy Routine

While an emotional support animal is more than just a pet, they still need to be cared for just like any other animal. This might include walking, feeding, cleaning out litter trays, trips to the vet and more. Many ESA owners speak of how the responsibility of having an animal has helped them to get into a better routine, whether it’s waking up early, getting more exercise, or simply leaving the house every day. For some people, knowing that they have another living being relying on them helps to break them out of negative spirals and live more mindfully in the present.

If you think an emotional support animal could help you or a loved one, the first step is to get in contact with a licensed mental health professional in your state. There are online services that can help with this, and the best ones even offer a free pre-screening process to help you see if you would be eligible.