Emotional support animals (ESAs) can improve depression by reducing stress and increasing social support. Learn the benefits and process of registering an ESA.

Having animals in our day-to-day life has been shown to result in many benefits, from lowering blood pressure to increasing social connectedness. However, emotional support animals may be particularly beneficial for people who are struggling with depression.

While service dogs assist with disabilities, such as mobility or visual impairments, emotional support animals help with emotional distress and offer stability for people experiencing mental health difficulties. Many different animals have been trialed as emotional support animals, including farm animals and companion animals, like dogs and cats. The therapeutic use of animals for people with mental disorders is referred to as animal-assisted interventions and is guided by a therapist with expertise in this area.

The most common emotional support animals for depression are dogs and cats. Emotional support animals can be used in several different environments, including schools, airports, college campuses and at home. The presence of emotional support animals can alleviate negative feelings in the short term and boost long-term mood and functioning in people with mood disorders. Given the prevalence of depression in the U.S. and internationally, emotional support animals may offer a relatively low-cost strategy for improving symptoms of depression.

How Emotional Support Animals Help with Depression

The benefits of an emotional support animal for depression impact physiological, emotional and psychological well-being. In general, emotional support animals can help with depression by offering reassurance and companionship to people experiencing low mood or clinical depression. More specifically:

  • Emotional support animals can improve some of the physical markers of depression, mainly by reducing high states of anxiety and arousal common in depression
  • Emotional support animals can support emotional functioning by helping people establish social interactions and connections
  • Animals can act as a buffer in social situations that might feel uncomfortable for people with depression, and they can encourage daily interaction and growth of social networks, which can protect against low mood
  • Caring for emotional support animals can build self-efficacy, or the belief that a person can control a given outcome, which can improve depression

Interestingly, emotional support animals may be particularly helpful for single people and women, as women have been found to have more positive attitudes and behaviors toward animals. However, benefits of emotional support animals have been found in people of all life situations, genders and ages.

Getting an Emotional Support Animal for Depression

Interest in having animals certified as emotional support animals has grown significantly, with significant increases in the number of animals registered over the past two decades. While some people may be interested in seeking animal-assisted interventions with trained animals, others may wish to have their pets certified as emotional support animals. The definitions and criteria for emotional support animals can vary by location, and there are different rules by jurisdiction. Dogs are the most commonly used emotional support animal and are most likely to be accepted as a form of emotional support.

In the U.S., under the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA) and Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), people who meet certain criteria are entitled to have an emotional support dog with them in their daily life. These individuals are permitted to:

  • Have the dog live with them, despite any no-pet policies
  • Bring dogs in the cabin of airplanes at no additional cost to assist with flying anxiety
  • Bring their support dog to businesses or places of work

Importantly, a medical certificate or letter stating professional recommendation for an emotional support animal for mental or emotional support is required. Dogs should be clearly identified as emotional support animals by wearing a collar or vest. Emotional support dogs must also meet behavioral requirements and be well-socialized to people and other animals.

Best Dogs Breeds for Depression

The best emotional support dogs for depression are also commonly used as service dogs for physical disabilities. Labrador and golden retriever breeds are among the most common emotional support animals, given their social and playful nature. Other breeds, such as German shepherds or smaller dogs like chihuahuas are also frequently registered as emotional support animals.

Ultimately, the best breed of emotional support dog for depression depends largely on an individual’s personality and preferences. Other people may prefer to visit a farm or clinic to access animal-assisted therapy, and these alternatives still offer many benefits for mental health.
Animal-assisted therapy can be useful in helping alleviate the symptoms of many mental health conditions, including addiction. If you or a loved one is interested in learning more about animal-assisted therapies offered at The Recovery Village for co-occurring addiction and depression, reach out to a representative today for more information.

Megan Hull
Editor – Megan Hull
Megan Hull is a content specialist who edits, writes and ideates content to help people find recovery. Read more
Sarah Dash
Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Sarah Dash, PHD
Dr. Sarah Dash is a postdoctoral research fellow based in Toronto. Sarah completed her PhD in Nutritional Psychiatry at the Food and Mood Centre at Deakin University in 2017. Read more

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Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.