What is an Emotional Support Animal (ESA)?

According to California Law, to legally be considered an emotional support animal (ESA), the pet needs to be recommended by a licensed mental health professional to a person living with a mental health concern, impacting one of their major life activities.  A therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist must determine that the presence of the animal is needed for the mental health of the patient. For example, owning a pet might ease a person’s anxiety by helping them feel calmer when the pet is with them.

Dogs are the most common type of emotional support animal, and cats have become common as well. People living with a mental health concern find that their animal comforts them and makes it easier to function in life.

happy dog playing on the beach

Emotional Support Dogs Are Not Psychiatric Service Dogs

Psychiatric Service Dogs require extensive training to work specifically with people whose disability is due to a moderate to severe mental illness. These dogs detect the beginning of psychiatric episodes and help ease their effects. Although this sounds similar to the role of an ESA, the difference between a psychiatric service dog and an ESA is the tasks performed by the dog and the training received to perform these tasks.

Psychiatric service dogs (recognized by the ADA as service dogs) have been trained to do certain jobs that help the handler cope with a mental illness. For example, the dog might remind a person to take prescribed medications, keep a disoriented person in a dissociative episode from wandering into a hazardous situation such as traffic or perform room searches for a person with post-traumatic stress disorder. If it is simply the dog’s presence that helps the person cope, then the dog does not qualify as a psychiatric service dog.

Benefits of an Emotional Support Animal

Research has supported the idea that animals can provide significant mental health benefits. One research review found that owning a pet has positive effects on mental health by fostering emotional connectivity and helping people manage symptoms of mental health.
Some of the other benefits that emotional support animals may provide include:
  • Improved physical health. Studies have found that emotional support animals help to lower blood pressure, decrease respiration rates, and improve the ability to cope with pain.

  • Less anxiety. Simply petting an animal can create a relaxation response and elevate mood. Some people are even able to stop taking anxiety medication.

  • Reduced feelings of loneliness. Animals can provide companionship, which is especially important for people who live alone and experience symptoms of depression and anxiety.

  • Sense of purpose. Caring for an emotional support animal can also help give people a sense of purpose. Our furry friends provide unconditional love and companionship.

  • Trauma support. Pets can provide comfort to people who are dealing with difficult situations, including those who have experienced some type of trauma.

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