Emotional Support Animals

The role of emotional support animals in treating emotional and behavioral disorders

Emotional Support Animals

Animals can really comfort us in hard times.

Everyday life is a roller coaster of our emotional state. One day we may feel on top of the world, believing that we’re able to accomplish anything and the sky’s the limit. We have stamina, a good mindset, and focus — nothing can stop us from taking the world over. And another day we are down in the dumps — we feel tired, numb, anxious, or irritated. 


These emotional fluctuations are quite common among all of us. However, when emotional instability starts to have an impact on your daily activities and social life, it could be a sign that you may be suffering from an emotional or behavioral disorder.


Emotional and behavioral disorders

According to the article published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing, around 20% of young people in the U.S. have a current mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder. About half of all adults with mental disorders recalled that their disorders began by their mid-teens and three-quarters by their mid-20s. Behavioral disorders usually include:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Disruptive behavioral disorders
  • Dissociative disorders
  • Pervasive developmental disorders


An emotional disorder affects a person’s ability to control their emotions, symptoms of which include:

  • Inappropriate actions or emotions under normal circumstances
  • Learning difficulties that are not caused by another health factor
  • Difficulty with interpersonal relationships
  • A general feeling of unhappiness, anxiety, or depression


Although treatment plans may vary incredibly for each individual determined to have emotional-behavior disorders, every one of them needs unconditional love and emotional support. That’s why pet therapy, also referred to as animal-assisted therapy (AAT), is often advised by mental health professionals. ESA Care’s Dr. Mark Zager puts it, “When it comes to particular mental health disorders, animal-assisted therapy may take place as an addition or, in some cases, even a replacement of medical treatment.”


What is animal-assisted therapy

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT), a goal-oriented and structured therapeutic intervention directed by health providers, often serves in conjunction with traditional work done by a licensed mental health professional. AAT is becoming increasingly popular because of the great results it shows. 


Although different AAT programs offer various kinds of pets for people with certain physical and emotional needs, dogs are the major animals used for these purposes. The goals of a pet therapy program can include decreasing symptoms of anxiety, stress, isolation and loneliness, developing social skills, because of its calming effects, etc. 


Pets and their therapeutic effects

Animals, especially domestic dogs, are especially receptive to people’s physical and emotional needs. You might notice how your dog can somehow understand if you’re upset and will seek to calm you by nudging or licking you. Some pets are particularly sensitive to changes in human mental health conditions; some of them can even sense an oncoming seizure in someone with epilepsy. In terms of mental health, animals can help:

  • Reduce anxiety and ease feelings of loneliness
  • Decrease stress
  • Release endorphins
  • Reduce posttraumatic stress (PTSD) symptoms
  • Improve sleep


Animal-assisted therapy is often used to help people with depression. A study found that patients with dementia who received 11 weeks of dog-assisted therapy improved their depression symptoms compared with those who had human-only therapy. Some hospitals also use animal-assisted therapy for patients struggling with stress and anxiety disorders. 


AAT is considered particularly helpful for people seeking mental health treatment after traumatic events like an accident, the death of a loved one, divorce, domestic violence, sexual or physical abuse, or natural catastrophes. However, not only pet therapy under medical supervision brings benefits to the mental health of pet-owners, but simple interaction with a furry family member can improve their overall psychological state. Usually these pets are called emotional support animals. 


Unlike assistance pets, emotional support animals can be with you even at your place, there’s no need to visit a special medical facility to spend time with them. Living with an emotional support animal can benefit your mental well-being. You can talk to your beloved pet, snuggle with him, or just quietly relax in his presence. Even just ten or fifteen minutes of this bonding if repeated daily can make a big difference to your mental health — you’ll feel more relaxed and focused.


Can my pet be considered an Emotional Support Animal?

An emotional support animal (ESA) is a pet that provides therapeutic support to a person with a mental illness. To be designated as an emotional support animal, the pet must be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional for a person with a mental illness. The document stating that the individual has a mental health disorder, and that the presence of the animal is necessary for the individual’s mental health, is called an ESA letter. 


ESA letters can be prescribed only by a licensed mental health professional who has a proper ID license. Otherwise, the document has no legal effect. Pet-owners also should keep in mind that there’s no governmental database/ registry. No “ESA registration” is required by law to make your pet an ESA.


So, if you noticed that the presence of your pet makes your emotional condition healthier, or it’s easier for you to handle emotions when your pet is around, then it makes sense to check in with a mental health professional. A lot of people find it easier to obtain authenticated ESA letters online which is a more convenient way to do that in terms of saving time, money and efforts. 


Unfortunately, not all of the ESA telemedicine services that issue ESA letters are legitimate, so be careful when choosing one. Pay attention to the following attributes that indicate a legitimate and reliable service:

● The service does not offer to “register” your pet. There’s no national registry for ESAs! Please keep that in mind. 

  • An ESA letter service provider is backed by a real, walk-in brick and mortar medical clinic.
  • Online ESA letter service providers showcase their physical addresses and location of their office.
  • All of the mental health professionals of a particular service are licensed to practice in a specific state. 
  • ESA letters are issued by licensed doctors. 
  • A doctor’s license ID is written on the ESA letter.
  • ESA letter service providers offer clients to obtain an ESA letter only after a therapy session with a licensed doctor. 
  • An ESA letter is issued for 1 year only. After that it needs to be renewed.
  • The service offers support beyond just issuing ESA letters: it stays connected with their clients after they receive their letters. 


Emotional support dogs are the best to benefit the mental health of their owners

For pet-owners with certain mental health disorders the companionship of a dog can be critical to their health and emotional stability. That is why psychologists, physicians, and other mental health professionals have started to “prescribe” emotional support animals as a standalone kind of help or as a part of a treatment plan along with counseling, medical treatment, following a particular lifestyle, etc.

Either way, the treatment plan will depend on the individual symptoms of emotional or behavioral disorders, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is. 


While dogs are often chosen as emotional support animals because of their sensitivity and devotion, other animals can also be used as ESAs.


Here are the ways how emotional support dogs can benefit your mental health:


#1 Emotional Support dogs reduce stress 

Stress is often the result of feeling overwhelmed because of the pressures that we face as part of our daily life, traumatic experiences that happen, inability to cope with negative emotions, etc. Bringing in an emotional support dog in your life, can help reduce anxiety and stress, according to several research studies. One such discovery claims that interacting with a dog facilitates the production of dopamine — a neurotransmitter that controls the feeling of pleasure. 


So, if you face episodes of anxiety or depression symptoms, you can get an emotional support dog. A furry companion will help you feel safe and cared for.


#2 Spending time with an emotional support dog will increase your physical activity

The links between depression, anxiety and exercise aren’t completely clear. However, various forms of physical activity can ease symptoms of depression or anxiety and make you feel better due to releasing feel-good endorphins during a workout. Sports can also help take your mind off worries


Unfortunately, some people suffering from depression find it hard to get out of bed or leave their room. That’s why getting an emotional support dog can give people with mental health disabilities a purpose to wake up in the morning and get out outside their room. Recent research found that dog owners walk more than people who do not have dogs. So, regular walks with the dog will also help some people deal with anxiety and depression conditions. 


#3 Emotional support dogs can help people with sleep disorders

Such sleep disturbances as insomnia, frequent waking, or nightmares are usually the signal of mental health problems. According to research, up to 70% of PTSD patients suffer from chronic nightmares. Chronic stress and anxiety can also lead to sleep disorders.


As the causes of sleep problems are multifold and complex, there is no single treatment that is effective. However, a lot of mental health professionals find co-sleeping with pets beneficial in terms of improving quality of sleep due to pet’s calming effects. A recent study found that sleeping with a favorite furry family member can make some people feel more secure and comfortable.


So, as you can see, emotional support pets help people cope with various emotional and behavioral disorders. If you don’t have a pet, but you have a mental health disability, it makes sense to get a furry family member. If you already have a pet who helps you  deal with certain symptoms of an emotional disability, you should follow up with a licensed mental health professional to find out if your pet can be a medical “prescription” to your diagnosis in case it’s confirmed. 


Emotional Support Animals

Although not required, it’s usually a good idea to have a vest to let people know your dog is a working dog.

Many thanks to our guest blogger:

ESA Care team; ESA Care is a comprehensive telemedicine service company that gives people the option to speak with a licensed mental health professional as part of the process to obtain an ESA letter for housing and/or travel.