A tender friend can be a wonderful addition to any household. If you live with a mental health condition, your pet’s role could be even more significant.

Domesticated pig registered as emotional support animalShare on Pinterest
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Pets are like family members to many of us, offering a unique kind of:

  • pleasure
  • support
  • companionship

And if you live with a mental health condition, they can also play a key role in your treatment plan.

An emotional support animal (ESA) offers all the same wonderful benefits as any pet but also enjoys some specific protections under federal and state laws. An emotional support animal may be able to accompany you in settings where an ordinary pet wouldn’t otherwise be allowed.

An emotional support animal offers relief to a person with a mental health condition through companionship rather than specific tasks the animal has been trained to perform.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, emotional support animals don’t qualify as service animals. But several other laws offer protections to emotional support animals and their owners.

The mental health benefits of spending time with animals are well documented, and in recent years, emotional support animals have grown in popularity.

A 2018 meta-analysis showed that pet ownership provided several positive benefits to people living with mental health conditions.

A more recent pilot study from The University of Toledo focused specifically on emotional support animals, and found quantifiable benefits for people experiencing serious mental illness, including depression and anxiety.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) distinguishes between psychiatric service animals and emotional support animals. Here are a few of the key similarities and differences:

Emotional support animalPsychiatric service dog
any domesticated animal can serve as an ESAonly dogs can be trained to be a PSD
not protected through ADA or DOTprotected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Department of Transportation (DOT), and Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
provides comfortprovides comfort
task-trained to help a person with a mental health condition or disability
variable training, if at alltakes an average of 2–3 years to train
costs not covered by insurancecosts not covered by insurance
not permitted in public if its presence is unreasonable or it infringes on the rights of otherspermitted in public locations even if it’s a “no pets” location
under HUD, permitted to live with owner even with a “no pets” policyunder HUD, permitted to live with owner even with a “no pets” policy

Imagine a person with panic disorder is trying to decide which type of animal is the best fit for them.

A psychiatric service animal could be trained to recognize when a panic attack is imminent and take specific action to mitigate the symptoms, like applying pressure therapy to the human’s lap for grounding.

An emotional support animal could provide comfort and distraction from the panic attack, but wouldn’t respond according to psychiatric service training.

Any condition that’s considered a disability under the ADA can qualify you for an emotional support animal. This includes mental health conditions like:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • panic disorder

In order to qualify for an emotional support animal, your condition must be documented by a qualified mental health professional, such as a:

  • therapist
  • psychologist
  • psychiatrist

If you think that an emotional support animal could be helpful for you, it’s a good idea to speak with a doctor or clinician about the possibility, as well as your family or anyone else you live with.

Keep in mind that taking care of an animal requires a significant investment of both time and money. It’s important to think realistically about whether an emotional support animal is a right fit for you and your diagnosis.

The most common types of emotional support animals are dogs, followed by cats. This is no surprise since these are also the two most common types of pets in the United States, but there’s technically no limitation on what animal can be classified as an emotional support animal, as long as the animal is registered as a legitimate ESA.

Some rarer types of emotional support animals include:

  • bearded dragons
  • rabbits
  • birds
  • pigs
  • monkeys

Not to mention a peacock, which made headlines after it was denied entry onto a United Airlines flight in 2018.

To register an emotional support animal, you’ll need a prescription letter from a qualified mental health professional, who can attest to your condition and the benefit that you’ll gain from the emotional support animal.

Specific registration requirements vary by state, and some states now require that this professional have an established relationship with the client before supplying this letter.

If you’re already seeing a therapist or psychiatrist, they may be able to provide the letter for you or refer you to a professional who can help.

There are various laws that protect emotional support animals and their owners. One of the most important is the federal Fair Housing Act, which requires that people with disabilities should have equal access to housing and that landlords must make reasonable accommodations to ensure this.

In most cases, the residence of a registered emotional support animal is recognized as a “reasonable accommodation” that a landlord or owner must make for a person with a disability.

In most cases, this means that an emotional support animal must be allowed even if pets aren’t and that no extra fees or rent can be charged for the animal.

In the past, airlines in the United States recognized emotional support animals, but this law was largely eliminated in 2021. Today, most airlines only recognize service animals, and other types of pets may incur fees or not be allowed to travel in the cabin at all.

Spending time with animals is known to be a mental health boost, and there’s a growing body of evidence to support the benefits of emotional support animals.

An emotional support animal can provide folks living with a variety of mental health conditions:

  • comfort
  • companionship
  • moral support

ESAs are protected under federal housing law.

Whether you’re considering getting an emotional support animal for the first time, or you’re interested in registering an existing pet, it’s a good idea to speak with a mental health professional.

They’ll be able to advise you about the process and help you to decide whether an emotional support animal is the right fit for your needs.