Emotional Support Animals and Mental Health

Naomi Carr
Dr. Jenni Jacobsen
Written by Naomi Carr on 14 June 2024
Medically reviewed by Dr. Jenni Jacobsen on 14 June 2024

Pets can be a great source of comfort and companionship for many. This is why many people choose to have an animal in their home for emotional and therapeutic support. Emotional support animals can help people cope with mental health symptoms and live more comfortable and enriched lives.

Emotional Support Animals and Mental Health

Why are animals good for mental health?

Animals can provide many benefits to mental health, whether a family pet, service animal, or emotional support animal. Many studies have investigated these benefits, which include:

  • Reducing stress: Stroking and spending time with animals has been found to release oxytocin and reduce cortisol, which can positively impact stress levels. This means that animals can help reduce the physical symptoms of stress, such as cardiovascular reactions and high blood pressure. 
  • Improving symptoms of depression: As animals can increase oxytocin release, they also can help reduce symptoms of depression. Furthermore, animals can help improve social interactions and reduce loneliness, helping people with depression to feel less isolated and more connected with others. 
  • Managing trauma-related symptoms: Animals can improve stress-related symptoms that are associated with trauma conditions. They can be used to help people with conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) feel safe in unknown situations by recognizing potential dangers or providing a feeling of protection.
  • Improving symptoms of anxiety disorders: Spending time with animals can help reduce negative thought patterns and rumination, which can be calming to people with anxiety disorders. People with social anxieties may find that having an animal helps them to feel more comfortable engaging with others.
  • Providing company: Isolation and loneliness are common symptoms of various mental health issues. Having an animal in the home can significantly reduce these feelings, providing bonding, closeness, and comfort.
  • Improving social skills: People with animals that need regular exercise, such as dogs, are likely to meet other animal owners and engage in conversation. For example, one study shows that over 80% of dog owners talk to other dog owners when they go for a walk. This can help those who struggle with social interactions or feel lonely as it can improve their self-esteem, social skills, trust, and sense of community.
  • Increased physical exercise: Engaging in physical exercise can have significant mental and physical health benefits. Having an animal can encourage people to spend more time outside exercising, as the pet provides company and motivation.

The importance of emotional support animals

Emotional support animals (ESAs) can help people with a diagnosed mental health condition, such as depression, anxiety disorders, or PTSD. Unlike service dogs and therapy animals, ESAs don’t need any special training. However, they can still provide important emotional support.

ESAs can help individuals with mental health conditions reduce the impact of their symptoms or prevent the onset or worsening of a severe episode. Having the loyalty and companionship of an ESA can help people feel less lonely, improve their self-esteem, increase resilience and coping abilities, and improve socialization.

These benefits have been found to significantly reduce the impact of various mental health conditions and symptoms. ESAs may be a family pet or the companion of an individual living alone and can be beneficial for children and adults. They can provide important support to these individuals alongside therapeutic and medicinal treatments.

Types of therapy animals

Dogs are the most common animal used for therapeutic purposes, as they can be easily trained and are often intrinsically friendly. Service dogs and therapy dogs are trained specifically for their purpose and are required to have gentle temperaments. Service dogs, such as guide dogs, are recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

ESAs are not recognized as service animals, so they are not recognized by the ADA. There are no temperament or training requirements for an ESA. Their therapeutic benefit can simply include providing companionship and loyalty.

Any animal can be an ESA if a mental health professional has provided a letter pertaining to this. Other animals used as ESAs include cats, horses, gerbils, lizards, birds, and pigs.

Certain animals have also been used as therapeutic aids, such as horses in equine therapy. Equine therapy or equine-assisted services (EAS) uses horses to help those with anxiety or PTSD among other conditions to help relax patients through nonverbal communication, elicit emotional responses that may be difficult to gain from human interactions, and create relationships that promote connection and empathy.

Can support animals help with addiction recovery?

Support animals can provide helpful support during addiction recovery, especially for those with associated mental health symptoms or who are isolated and benefit from the companionship.

Animals, particularly dogs, have been found to have significantly positive impacts on people with substance use disorders, including people without homes, veterans, and those engaged in methadone treatment.

Evidence suggests that animals used for therapeutic purposes in residential addiction programs can enhance therapeutic outcomes and improve quality of life.

How to get an emotional support animal

To certify an ESA, a mental health professional must first have diagnosed you with a mental health condition. They will then provide you with a letter to state that your pet provides you with necessary emotional support to help with your symptoms. Once you have received this letter, your pet is documented as an ESA.

Any animal can be an ESA, so if you already have a pet, you can ask a professional to provide you with a letter. If you don’t have a pet, you will first need to get an animal that can meet your needs before obtaining documentation. 

Before getting a pet, it is important to consider your housing situation, such as if you have enough space for a certain type of animal and if your landlord will allow them to reside there. ESAs are included under the Fair Housing Act, so they are permitted to live in buildings with no-pet policies, but you should discuss this with your landlord before adopting or buying a pet.

You should also consider how well you might be able to provide for your animal, depending on your mental health symptoms, schedule, and other circumstances. It may be beneficial to first research the training and care requirements of different animals to understand what will work best for you.

Final thoughts

Emotional support animals can provide many mental and physical health benefits. Any pet can be registered as an emotional support animal, as long as the person has a diagnosed mental health condition and a recommendation from a mental health professional for an ESA.

It is important to consider the needs of the animal as well as your own needs, to ensure that you can look after the animal and that you will receive the necessary emotional support. You may also wish to engage in other therapeutic interventions to help with your symptoms.

Resources:

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  2. Walsh, F. (2009). Human-Animal Bonds I: The Relational Significance of Companion Animals. Family Process, 48(4), 462–480. Retrieved from
  3. Qureshi, A.I., Memon, M.Z., Vazquez, G., & Suri, M.F. (2009). Cat Ownership and the Risk of Fatal Cardiovascular Diseases. Results from the Second National Health and Nutrition Examination Study Mortality Follow-up Study. Journal of Vascular and Interventional Neurology, 2(1), 132–135. Retrieved from
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  6. Gibeault, S. (2021). Everything You Need To Know About Emotional Support Animals. American Kennel Club. Retrieved from
  7. American Psychiatric Association. (2022). Resource Document on Emotional Support Animals. APA. Retrieved from
  8. Mental Health America. (n.d). How Do I Get An Emotional Support Animal? MHA. Retrieved from
  9. Monfort Montolio, M., & Sancho-Pelluz, J. (2019). Animal-Assisted Therapy in the Residential Treatment of Dual Pathology. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(1), 120. Retrieved from
  10. Kerr-Little, A., Bramness, J.G., Newberry, R.C., & Biong, S. (2023). Exploring Dog Ownership in the Lives of People with Substance Use Disorder: A Qualitative Study. Addiction Science & Clinical Practice, 18(1), 57. Retrieved from

Activity History - Last updated: 14 June 2024, Published date:


Reviewer

Dr. Jenni Jacobsen has a PhD in psychology, and she teaches courses on mental health and addiction at the university level and has written content on mental health and addiction for over 10 years.

Activity History - Medically Reviewed on 12 June 2024 and last checked on 14 June 2024

Medically reviewed by
Dr. Jenni Jacobsen

PhD

Dr. Jenni Jacobsen

Reviewer

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