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Ultimate Guide to Emotional Support Animals

Old Wirey haired dog providing support to their owner

We all know just how animals can provide joy and companionship in our lives. And we are finding out just how people with mental problems and disabilities are also relying on these wonderful animal companions so they don’t have to ‘walk’ alone.

Animals used as animal companions are called emotional support animals or ESAs. This group of special animals is growing in popularity over the years, as anxiety and mental issues continue to rise, amongst adults and also children. The job of these animals is to offer companionship, love, and support that will alleviate aspects of anxiety, loneliness, and despair. Dogs are most commonly used to act as emotional support animals, but cats are becoming quite common as well.

Sometimes other animals are used such as horses and others. On one occasion, a peacock made headlines because it was denied from being admitted onto a United Airlines flight. The owner explained that the peacock was an emotional support animal. There is no special type of animal that becomes an emotional support animal; all kinds of animals fly with their owners and records show that pigs, ducks, turkeys, monkeys, all have been used to offer support and companionship to people who need this link with animal friends. 

What benefits do emotional support animals provide?

Cocker spaniel laying on a sofa upside down
  • Why do people need to use an animal as emotional support? Well, research shows that animals offer significant mental health benefits. One study found that when you own a pet, positive effects are shown on the mood, and also for those who suffer from mental health problems – people just seem to cope better and also recover from certain illnesses when they have been allowed to have their animal with them. Many retirement homes do not allow pets, and yet it is these very unique creatures that many seniors havebenefited from as their only companion to see them through tough lonely times.
  • Just petting an animal creates a ‘happiness’ response and lifts the mood in children and adults. Animals can provide companionship, sometimes that no human can, and these emotional support animals are often used to help people in times of trauma.
  • Animals help people to improve in their health and research shows that having a pet helps to lower the blood pressure and improve peoples’ ability to handle pain.
  • Loneliness is a terrible feeling and for those who live alone, who go through times of depression and anxiety, an animal combats that loneliness.
  • People are given a sense of purpose when they have to care for an animal, and they are given back wonderful rewards, the love, unconditional love and companionship from an animal.
  • For some people with disabilities, the presence of an animal is vital to their daily functioning. The emotional comfort and support and comfort provided by a pet allows them to deal with challenges that might otherwise have compromised their quality of life.

Emotional support dogs vs. service dogs – is there a difference?

White poodle getting treats for being supportive

Even though emotional support dogs offer support through their companionship in that they help with the easing of depression, anxiety, and certain phobias, there is a difference between ESA dogs and service dogs. This means ESA dogs and other animals used for this purpose do not have the same rights.

Service dogs, for example, such as guide dogs for the blind, are generally allowed anywhere in the public, whereas ESAs are not. ESA dogs can’t just accompany their owners into shopping malls, or restaurants, or stadiums, that type of thing.

TheAmericans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines what service animals are. It says they are “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” The act states that animals which simply provide emotional comfort don’t qualify as service animals under the ADA.

There are some states and local laws that have broader descriptions. If you are concerned, then be sure to check with your local government agencies to learn if ESAs qualify for public access in your areas.

The fact remains that the key difference between a service dog and an ESA is in the animal’s training. Usually, service dogs have been trained specifically to perform certain tasks related to a person’s disability, for example, the guide dogs for the visually impaired person – the dog is trained to walk around an obstacle, to stop at red traffic lights, etc.

A dog which acts as comforter, in other words, when an anxious person reaches out to cuddle a dog when perplexed or under extreme anxiousness – this type of emotional support does not qualify as a dog performing its tasks – it has not been trained to perform a task or service; it is merely a companion offering emotional support which is not a qualification that the dog is performing a task. A dog is a companion and emotional supporter to anyone in all circumstances – no what their circumstances are.

ESA dogs aren’t psychiatric service dogs either

Terrier waiting on the rug
  • You do get dogs known as psychiatric service dogs. Look here to see the difference between service dogs, ESA dogs, and others. Psychiatric service dogs work specifically with people whose disability is due to mental illness.
  • These dogs are capable of detecting the start of a psychiatric episode for instance and will help ease the effects. This might sound a lot like the role of an ESA, but there’s a difference. The psychiatric service dog, unlike an ESA, performs tasks required of them. Psychiatric service dogs have been trained specifically to do certain jobs that help the dog’s handler to cope with a mental illness. The dog might have been trained to remind his owner to take the prescribed medications; or they might be required to ‘hold back’ a disoriented person from wandering into hazardous situations like traffic for instance; they might do room searches, looking out for people with post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • If it is just purely a dog’s comforting presence that helps a person cope, then the dog does not qualify as a psychiatric service dog. Otherwise, we would all have our dogs with us at our daily jobs, wouldn’t we!



What are the legal rights of emotional support dogs?

Happy pit bull playing with a yellow ball in the park
  • Even though all dogs do offer an emotional connection to their owners, if a dog is to be legally considered as an emotional support dog, the pet needs to be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional when it comes to a person with a disabling mental illness. It will be the therapist, a psychiatrist or a psychologist, who will decide that the presence of the particular animal is needed for a patient’s mental health.
  • Although they are not service dogs, ESAs do have certain rights in terms of housing and air travel. Read the Fair Housing Act.
  • Also, read theAir Carrier Access Act which allows service animals and ESAs to accompany their handler in an aircraft’s cabin.

They give care – but they need care too!

It is pretty inherent that if your dog or whatever pet you have is expected to provide a service for you, it is a top priority that you ensure the best care for them, right? You can’t mess around when it comes to a dog or a cat’s, any animal’s health, just as you take care of your own - and therefore it is important that you give them the best love, TLC, top quality food, and care possible for the outstanding service they deliver – it works both ways!

For More SitStay Works Check Out

Ultimate guide to emotional support animals By Molly Boman

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