If you have a pet, you already know how special your connection is. Our cats and dogs aren’t just cute — they also offer real emotional benefits. Numerous studies prove that dogs and cats make us happier and healthier; in fact, simply petting an animal can relieve stress. If your feline or canine pal is extra supportive, they could be classified as an emotional support animal (ESA). Keep reading to learn what having an emotional support animal entails, plus how to apply for your pet to become one.
What is an emotional support animal?
US Service Animals describes an emotional support animal as “an animal that provides comfort just by being with a person.” Unlike seeing eye dogs — who are trained to lead blind or visually impaired people around obstacles — ESAs are not working animals, which means they’re not trained to perform a specific task and are not formally considered service animals by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). While you can get an existing pet to become an ESA, Healthline notes that they “are not pets.” Rather, “they provide therapeutic benefits to people with a disability.”
Since ESAs don’t require specific training, they don’t have to be dogs. Any domesticated animal of any age can qualify as an ESA. However, an ESA must be well-behaved in public and cannot create a nuisance. Even though they aren’t service animals in the traditional sense, support animals have the privilege of being permitted in places they’d otherwise be barred from (like restaurants and certain modes of transportation). They can also — depending on your state’s specific laws — live in housing that would not otherwise allow pets.
What kinds of conditions do ESAs support?
Support animals are registered for emotional rather than physical issues. If you’re struggling with one of the below mental health challenges (as listed by VeryWell Health) and feel that your pet eases symptoms, you may want to discuss the possibility of registering them as an ESA with your mental healthcare provider.
- Bipolar/mood disorders
- Panic attacks
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Personality disorders
What is the process of getting your animal qualified?
In order to get your pet recognized as an ESA, you must have a signed letter from your therapist, psychiatrist, or other registered healthcare provider. Ideally, your letter will come from a therapist you’ve been working with for a while who can attest to how an ESA would or does help your mental health. This letter must state that you have an emotional disability, as defined by the ADA.
You may be surprised to learn that there’s not an official registration process. While online registrations do exist, Dr. Rebecca Johnson, a nurse at University of Missouri Health who studies human-animal interactions, told Healthline that there’s actually “no such thing as a registered ESA” and noted that “many people fake an ESA out of their pet by putting a vest on it.” As Psychology Today describes it, “federal laws covering emotional support animals and service dogs are confusing,” and some people take advantage of this confusion.
Who should not get their animal qualified?
Your animal likely offers you comfort and support even if they aren’t registered as an ESA — but that doesn’t mean you can classify them as an emotional support animal on your own. The ESA designation refers to something specific, and it’s important to respect the guidelines. Unfortunately, as support animals have become more widely recognized, many people have faked the need for an ESA, and gotten their animals designated as such through for-profit websites known by mental health professionals as “ESA mills.” Because of this, there are increasing restrictions on where ESAs are allowed. Obtaining an unwarranted ESA designation causes harm to those who actually benefit from ESAs, because it makes people take them less seriously.
In short, an ESA isn’t just an animal that wears a special vest or is registered online. A proper ESA designation aids those who have diagnosed mental health issues. If you want to take your cat with you to restaurants for the fun of it, but don’t have a condition that a support animal will help with, avoid seeking ESA status.
What are the benefits of having an ESA?
Who among us hasn’t snuggled up to our dog or cat when we’re sad? They provide unconditional love and affection — and the only thing required in return are food and belly rubs. ESAs are meant to offer comfort during moments of psychological distress and can help ease people’s anxiety and loneliness. While more research around the specific health benefits of ESAs (as opposed to regular pets or service animals) is needed, a review of 17 studies published in BMC Psychiatry confirmed that pets provide benefits to those who struggle with mental health, and a small 2021 study focusing on adults with serious mental illnesses reported that participants attributed improvements in their mental health and well-being to their ESAs.
Clearly, an emotional support animal can provide you with a welcome sense of peace (especially helpful for anyone suffering from trauma). Just remember that if you want to make your pet into an ESA, being evaluated by a healthcare provider is essential, and you and your doctor or therapist must consider (together) the ways in which an emotional support animal could lessen your diagnosed mental health struggles.
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