There’s no doubt that the current situation with COVID-19 has dramatically impacted mental health in America and more people than ever are struggling with depression, stress, and anxiety. While medication and talk therapy are the most commonly prescribed treatments, studies suggest that owning an emotional support animal can improve both mental and physical health.
The term emotional support animal (ESA) was established by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) in 1973 to help individuals with disabilities. An ESA must be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional, such as a psychologist, psychiatrist, or counselor, to receive the legal rights associated with the designation.
An emotional support animal is not the same as a service dog and differs in a few ways. For example, a service dog is trained to perform specific tasks for an individual with a disability. As a result, a service dog may go anywhere with their owners, including areas usually restricted to pets. By comparison, an emotional support animal is not required to have any training and they do not enjoy the same legal rights as a service dog.
Studies show that emotional support animals can benefit individuals with mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and feelings of loneliness. According to an article in Psychology Today, “petting, holding, or cuddling an animal increases the levels of serotonin and dopamine in our bodies, which are feel-good, changing brain chemicals. As a result of these positive chemical changes, feelings of depression and loneliness may be reduced while our self-esteem and happiness may increase.”
ESAs can be particularly helpful to seniors who are more prone to feelings of depression due to isolation, loneliness and lower levels of activity. Caring for a pet can provide a senior with a sense of purpose, increased physical activity, companionship, and a reason to get outside more. All mood elevators. Pet owners of all ages are also reported to have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels (indicators of heart disease) than those without pets,
Although emotional support animals do not have the same legal rights as service dogs, they are protected under the Fair Housing Act (FHA). This means that people with mental health disabilities who live in the U.S. with an ESA can be exempted from certain federal housing rules. In order to receive an exemption, an individual must meet the federal definition of disabled, and the animal must provide emotional support that alleviates some symptom or effect of the disability. Individuals who meet this criteria may live with their emotional support animal free of charge and deposits, even if the building doesn’t allow pets. The Fair House Act also prevents housing providers from imposing breed and weight restrictions on the emotional support animal.
Until recently, individuals with an ESA were allowed to travel together in the airplane cabin, until effective in January 2021, airlines are no longer required to accommodate emotional support animals (although a few airlines still have programs to allow them). This rule does not apply to psychiatric service dogs (PSDs). A PSD is a type of service dog that performs tasks relating to an owner’s psychological or intellectual disability.
If you have a story about an emotional support animal, we'd love to hear it. Looking for ways to improve your mental health, you can follow us on Instagram and be sure to check out our podcast on Google Podcast.