Emotional support animals (ESAs) can help improve symptoms of mental health conditions. Learn more about the registration process and benefits of qualifying for an ESA.
The benefits of animal-human interaction have been recognized for a long time. Animals can promote noticeable improvements in human mood, social connectedness and physical health. Recently, animals have been recognized as sources of emotional support, both in the general population and among people who may be experiencing a mental health condition. As a result, the popularity of emotional support animals and animal-assisted therapy has grown substantially.
What Are Emotional Support Animals?
Emotional support animals are often referred to as companion animals. They serve as a source of reassurance, security and affection for their owners. Emotional support animals (ESAs) are used for therapeutic benefit and can help people who are experiencing stress, anxiety or depression. ESAs are often used in combination with other types of therapy and certified ESAs may accompany their owners to school, work, travel or social situations.
Emotional Support Animal vs. Service Animal
Although considered similar in some ways, there are key differences between an ESA and a service animal in their training and role. Typically, service animals assist people who have physical or mental disabilities. While they may provide some emotional reassurance, a service animal’s primary job is to assist with or complete certain tasks that a person with a disability may have difficulty doing themselves. In contrast, emotional support animals offer emotional support for their owners but are not trained to do work or perform other tasks.
How to Get an Emotional Support Animal
The process of getting an ESA requires medical recommendation by a health professional, who can provide an emotional support animal letter as evidence of their recommendation. An ESA letter is required to prove that a person is under the care of a health professional and has been diagnosed with a condition that would benefit from an emotional support animal. For proof of the legitimacy of the letter, it’s helpful to have the letter on a doctor’s letterhead and to include their contact information.
Registering Your Emotional Support Animal
There is no official registry or registration process for ESAs. However, there are several options available online for the registration of an ESA, which provide tags and a certificate for an animal. The owner must provide basic information about the animal (name, breed, etc.) to complete the process. However, it is important to know that registration is not mandatory and does not verify an ESA on its own.
Even if an ESA has been registered, the animal is legally required to have a medical letter of support, provided by a therapist or doctor. Obtaining this letter can be a costly process for some people, and owners may be able to get a medical letter online through a secure and detailed application process. The application is evaluated by a medical professional to assess whether a letter of medical recommendation can be issued.
ESA Laws & Requirements
Under the Fair Housing Amendments Act and the Air Carrier Access Act, individuals with a medically certified letter recommending an ESA are entitled to have their ESA with them in their day-to-day life. Specifically, these ESA laws ensure that people with ESAs cannot be denied housing or asked to leave their current housing, regardless of no-pet policies.
People with ESAs also have the legal right to fly with their support animals in the cabin of a plane at no extra cost. Importantly, ESA owners are required to carry their medical support letter as evidence, and in some cases, ESAs are required to wear a vest or tag for identification.
Benefits of an Emotional Support Animal
There are many benefits of emotional support animals. They can have an impact on both physiology and mood. For example, ESAs can:
- Lower blood pressure and other markers associated with arousal and stress response
- Reduce feelings of stress, allowing a person to better deal with the situation at hand
- Serve as social icebreakers
- Foster social connectedness, which can reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation
- Promote companionship and reassurance, which reduce anxiety and panic
These benefits may be even more significant if there is a personal attachment to the animal, or an ESA is complemented by other forms of therapy.
Mental Health Conditions Helped by an ESA
ESAs can be used to assist individuals dealing with mental health conditions, such as:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Situation-specific phobias, including social phobia or fear of flying
- Substance use
- Acute or chronic stress
Specifically, ESAs help address feelings of tension, anxiety and low mood that are common symptoms of mental health conditions. If you are affected by any of these symptoms and are wondering if you qualify for an emotional support animal, speak to your doctor.
If you are also struggling with a substance use disorder, please contact us at The Recovery Village, for more information on how we can help you regain control of your life.
Campo, R. A. and Uchino B. N. “Humans bonding with their companion dogs[…]ing and after stress.” The Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, 2013. Accessed May 17, 2019.
Americans with Disabilities Act National Network. “Service Animals.” 2017. Accessed May 15th, 2019.
United States Dog Registry. “Information about Emotional Support Dog Registration.” 2019. Accessed May 15, 2019.
Hunt, M. G., & Chizkov, R. R. “Are Therapy Dogs Like Xanax? Does Animal-Assisted Therapy Impact Processes Relevant to Cognitive Behavioral Psychotherapy?” Anthrozoös,2014. Accessed May 17th, 2019.
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.