Benefits of an Emotional Support Animal

Having an animal by your side can make life a bit easier, and that isn’t just an opinion. There are many studies that have observed the effect pets have on our physical and mental well-being, and, as you might guess, most of them are positive. If you’re struggling with your mental health, you’ve probably heard of emotional support animals (ESAs) and may be wondering if one would be right for you.

In this article, we will review the various ways ESAs can benefit their owners and why you might want your pet to have the ESA distinction. We will also share information about psychiatric service dogs as an alternative to emotional support animals.

What Is an Emotional Support Animal?

An emotional support animal is an animal that is prescribed by a mental health professional to a patient who is suffering from a mental illness. Emotional support animals can be any type of domesticated animal.

These animals do not have to undergo any kind of training. Their presence alone can act as a treatment for the patient. This is because animals can provide many benefits to both our mental and physical health.

Emotional support animals are commonly prescribed to people who have anxiety, depression, PTSD, autism, ADHD, OCD, and other disorders. Through companionship and routine, these animals help people cope with the symptoms of their mental health disorders.

Benefits of an Emotional Support Animal

Animals can have a positive impact on both our mental and physical health. Many of us who have owned and loved animals are well aware of the comfort their unconditional love can bring, but animals affect our health in more ways than we realize. Here are some of the benefits of having an emotional support animal.

Unconditional Love and Acceptance

As human beings, we spend a lot of time judging one another, whether we realize it or not. The culture we grow up in teaches us to perceive things as normal, weird, wrong, or right. It teaches us to have certain expectations of others and of ourselves. Judgments aren’t always negative, but the negative ones weigh on us most heavily.

Even the people we love and who love us may judge us. These judgments may not always cause a rift in the relationship, but we are always aware of them. Sometimes, our worst critics are ourselves.

This is why the bond between pets and humans is truly special. Pets do not judge us the way that humans do – they do not care how many friends we do or don’t have, they don’t care about our careers or our success, they don’t care who we choose to have romantic relationships with, they don’t care about how we look.

As long as we treat our pets with kindness and respect, they give us unconditional love and acceptance. For some people, knowing that at least one being on this planet loves them without any conditions can make all the difference.
dog licks smiling woman’s cheek

Self-Worth and Purpose

Emotional support animals can help people find a sense of self-worth, purpose, and discipline. Because animals cannot care for themselves, it is up to their owners to feed, water, play with, and clean up after them; this can provide a sense of purpose.

Furthermore, most domesticated pets could not survive without the help of their owners. Knowing that one’s efforts are the very reason an animal is able to live happily and healthily can improve one’s sense of self-worth.

Mental illness can also affect our self-discipline and make it hard to do everyday things, even if those things would be beneficial to us. Animals can help with that, too! A study of teens with diabetes who were tasked with taking care of fish showed that those teens were more disciplined about checking their blood glucose levels and thus maintaining their health.

Reduce Stress, Anxiety, and Loneliness

Did you know that petting a dog can lower your stress? Interacting with dogs has been shown to reduce cortisol (the stress hormone) and increase oxytocin (the feel-good bonding hormone). Pets can help reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, and loneliness, and there have been many studies to back this up.

While many of these studies have focused on dogs, dogs aren’t the only animals that can have a positive effect. A study of children showed that spending just 10 minutes playing with guinea pigs reduced the children’s anxiety.

As we mentioned earlier, pets also provide unconditional love and companionship. When you have a pet, you always have a friend. In this way, pets can help reduce the feelings of loneliness.


Mental illness often prevents us from socializing. If you have severe anxiety, whether it be social or not, you may be too afraid or overwhelmed to go out with people. If you have depression, you may lack the energy to be around others. In some cases, mental illness causes people to close themselves off and even lose friendships.

It is easy to become isolated by mental illness. This is where having an ESA can help. Having a pet provides social interaction because it gives you someone to talk to, even if they can’t exactly understand everything you’re saying.

In some cases, an emotional support animal can even help you interact with people. When the ESA is present, you may feel more comfortable with social interactions than you would without them. People also love to talk about pets and animals, so not only would talking about your ESA as a pet be an ice breaker, but it’s also an easy way to find common ground and form connections with others.

Physical Benefits

Having an emotional support animal could also benefit your physical health. Some kinds of animals, dogs especially, help their owners get more exercise. This increase in exercise can reduce blood pressure and cholesterol.

Other positive effects of exercise include improving sleep and protecting against heart disease and diabetes. High-intensity workouts release endorphins, which are the body’s “feel-good” chemicals. Exercise can even be as effective as antidepressants in treating depression.

While dogs are the best option for increasing one’s exercise, there was an interesting study done about cats that showed cat owners were less likely to die from heart attacks. Specifically, people without cats had a 40% greater risk of death in the event of a heart attack and a 30% greater risk of death in the event of any other sort of cardiovascular disease.

As you can see, pets, including emotional support animals, can have a measurable difference on our physical health.
smiling woman cuddles with a cat

How to Get an Emotional Support Animal

If you feel like an ESA might be right for you, you may be wondering how to go about getting one. In order for an animal to become an ESA, you need to get an ESA letter from a licensed mental health professional in your state. To qualify for an ESA letter, you have to have a mental illness.

There is no definitive list of disorders that do or don’t qualify; instead, it is up to the discretion of your mental health professional. That said, some examples of mental health disorders that may benefit from an ESA include anxiety, PTSD, depression, bipolar disorder, chronic stress, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder, and learning disabilities.

If you believe your mental health issue is severe enough to warrant an ESA, then you will need to set up a consultation with a licensed mental health professional in your state. At this consultation, you and your doctor will discuss your need for an ESA. If the doctor approves, you will be sent an ESA letter on their official letterhead.

An ESA can be any kind of domesticated pet, so once you get the letter, you can adopt a pet if you do not already have one. If your living situation is not pet-friendly, then be sure to get an ESA letter before adopting a pet.

Why You Need an ESA Letter

ESAs have some legal privileges that pets do not. Mainly, emotional support animals are allowed to live with their owners anywhere, even in rentals that don’t allow pets. This is thanks to a law called the Fair Housing Act (FHA). The Fair Housing Act also states that landlords cannot charge ESA owners any fees for their ESAs.

This means that, with an ESA letter, you will not have to pay a pet deposit or any other monthly pet fees that most rentals would charge. The only time you would ever be required to pay your landlord a fee in regard to your ESA would be if your ESA somehow damaged the property.

Many landlords will ask for proof that your animal is, in fact, an ESA needed for your mental health, and the ESA letter acts as this proof. Be aware that many ESA letter scams exist; a real ESA letter can only come from a licensed mental health professional after a consultation. The letter will be on the doctor’s official letterhead and include their license number, type, and the date it was issued.

In the past, emotional support animals were allowed to accompany their owners onto planes. Unfortunately, these rights were revoked in December of 2020.

Psychiatric Service Dogs

If you think you will need your emotional support animal with you at all times, then you may want to look into getting a service dog instead. Psychiatric service dogs (PSDs), specifically, are used by people who have mental health disabilities.

Service dogs are different from emotional support animals because they are individually trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities. This training often takes one to two years to complete. Service dogs are highly trained workers; emotional support animals are not. As such, service dogs have rights that emotional support animals do not.

They are protected by both the Fair Housing Act we mentioned earlier and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA gives service dogs public access rights, meaning they can accompany their users into any public place. Unlike emotional support animals, psychiatric service dogs can accompany their users on airplanes thanks to the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA).
service dog licks at man’s face

What Can PSDs DO?

Now that you understand some of the privileges given to service animals, let’s talk about what psychiatric service dogs are and what they can do. Psychiatric service dogs are used by people who have disabilities like PTSD, depression, anxiety, ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, OCD, schizophrenia, dissociative disorders, and more.

They can perform a variety of tasks to help alleviate certain symptoms that their users may face. For example, psychiatric service dogs can interrupt repetitive or self-harming behaviors. They can also wake people up from nightmares.

For those who experience hallucinations, psychiatric service dogs can help them determine what is real and what isn’t by doing things like greeting anyone who enters the room. Psychiatric service dogs can also provide tactile stimulation and even deep pressure therapy for those who struggle with anxiety.

They’re also great at body blocking while in public, allowing their users to keep their personal space. For those who may have PTSD or other traumas, psychiatric service dogs can search rooms before their user enters them, allowing the user to feel safe that there is no threat within the room.

These are just a few examples of tasks psychiatric service dogs can perform. They are also able to do more basic tasks like fetching water or medication or reminding their users to take medication. What a PSD is trained to do will be specialized based on the disability of the person they are working for.

Is an ESA for You?

Emotional support animals can benefit our mental and physical well-being. They provide unconditional love and companionship, help people find purpose and self-worth, reduce stress and anxiety, provide socialization, and help people get exercise and all the benefits that come along with it.

To get an ESA, you must first visit with a licensed mental health professional and discuss your struggles with them and your desire for an ESA. If the professional agrees that an ESA would benefit you, they will write you an ESA letter. From there, it’s up to you to choose an existing pet to be your ESA or to go out and adopt a pet to be your ESA.

Unfortunately, emotional support animals are not able to accompany their owners everywhere. Those with more serious mental health disorders may want to consider getting a psychiatric service dog instead.