What Is an Emotional-Support Animal Anyway (and Can I Get One)?ESAs are not trained professionals, but they are adorable.
To state the extremely obvious, pets are the best. If you have one, you can probably name a bunch of times when they’ve made you smile, helped you out of a shitty mood, or reminded you to be more present. That’s basically the idea behind emotional-support animals—anecdotal evidence suggests that having a four-legged friend might have mental health benefits for some people beyond the delight that is hanging out with something cute (more on those specifics in a bit).
That said, the concept of emotional-support animals (ESAs) has gotten a bad rap in recent years. After people started requesting ESA letters from therapists to do things like take a peacock on a plane (true story) or bring their dogs into grocery stores, emotional-support animals kind of became a joke.
Still, the idea of adopting a pet in the name of improving your mental health is pretty tempting. But getting an emotional-support animal isn’t all snuggles and animal-assisted Target runs. Here’s what two therapists had to say about emotional-support animals and whether you should consider getting one.
What is an emotional-support animal?
An emotional-support animal is any animal that can help someone who’s emotionally dysregulated or dealing with mental health challenges, says therapist Kimberly Masterson, LMHC. That feeling of support typically comes from the fact that the animal offers constant companionship and unconditional love, she adds.
For some people with an anxiety disorder, petting or snuggling with an ESA can interrupt anxious thoughts and help bring them back to the present moment, like other grounding techniques, says Masterson. For some with depression, ESAs can provide a sense of purpose, she adds. They might find it easier to get out of bed and establish daily routines knowing that they have a cat that needs to be fed or a dog that needs to be walked. And, no matter what mental health condition you might be dealing with, an emotional-support animal can also help you feel less alone.
A while back, having a prescription for an ESA from a therapist could help you and your lil buddy travel and run errands together (or go to basically any public space that doesn’t normally allow animals). But in the last few years, lots of businesses—including some airlines—stopped giving ESAs special privileges, says licensed clinical psychologist Jessica Stern, PhD. So, unlike service animals (more on those in a sec), your pharmacy, dermatologist’s office, or local pizza place might not care if your cat is a prescribed ESA, even if you have the papers to prove it.
That said, ESAs do count as a reasonable accommodation under the Fair Housing Act, which means that landlords have to allow them to live with you, even if your building has a strict no-pets policy. For that reason, Masterson says she only writes ESA letters for clients who need one in order for their pet to live with them. JFYI, some buildings require additional paperwork, fees, and application steps in order to approve emotional-support animals. So there’s that.
How are emotional-support animals different from service animals?
Emotional-support animals are sometimes confused with service animals, but there’s a big difference between the two. Service animals are almost always dogs (but also sometimes mini horses) and they’re trained to do a task that’s specific to a person’s disability, according to the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. Let’s say you have severe panic attacks. In that case, a service dog could be trained to pick up on your panic attack cues and bring you your medication when you’re unable to move. ESAs, on the other hand, have no specific service training—they’re essentially just a normal pet who happens to improve your mental health.
While service animals are legally protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, emotional-support animals are not, says Dr. Stern. Though the rules can vary by state, most of the time, service animals are allowed in places most pets aren’t, like restaurants and stores. Unfortunately, ESAs aren’t.
Emotional-support animals are also different from therapy animals that you might spot in schools or hospitals. Therapy animals actually undergo in-depth training on how to provide comfort and interact with people outside their homes. After they pass their therapy classes (you’re welcome for this visual of dogs taking exams), they can work with professionals in settings like schools, nursing homes, or hospitals, explains Dr. Stern.
Should you get an emotional-support animal?
If you’re interested in an ESA, it’s definitely something you should discuss with your therapist. And if you don’t already have a therapist, you’ll want to find one who can help you decide whether bringing an animal into your life for this purpose is a good idea before adopting one.
That’s because adopting a pet, even one you’re bestowing with the title “ESA,” can be really stressful and frustrating. Even an emotionally supportive chinchilla or a bearded dragon can hit your finances, free time, and sleep hard, which can ramp up stress and anxiety for some too.
A therapist can also help you figure out whether getting an emotional-support animal could actually hold you back on your healing journey in the long run. Sometimes, people can become reliant on their ESAs and start to believe that they can’t cope with difficult emotions without them, explains Dr. Stern. For example, if you’re always relying on quality time with your dog to ease your anxiety, you may not be motivated to learn other coping strategies or make human connections. You might also totally panic if you’re faced with a situation where your dog’s not around. So, generally Dr. Stern recommends that clients try other therapeutic approaches before considering an emotional-support animal.
Finally, if your mental health is interfering with you being able to take care of your own basic needs, bringing an ESA into that situation won’t be ideal, says Masterson. Animals need food, water, attention, and exercise. And you won’t be able to meet their needs if you can’t meet your own.
The bottom line: While getting an emotional-support animal might seem like a fun idea, it’s a huge commitment that you should def discuss with a mental health professional first. Since most businesses don’t make accommodations for emotional-support animals anyway, keep in mind that this label may not change the way that you and your pet live your lives. And if what you’re really after is a service animal, you can find more information on the process and requirements for that here.
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.