Mental Health

The Healing Power of Emotional Support Animals

In recent years, the use of emotional support animals (ESAs) has gained popularity as a complementary therapy for individuals struggling with various mental health challenges. These animals, often cats, dogs, or other pets, provide comfort and emotional stability to their owners, contributing significantly to their mental and emotional well-being.

This article explores the profound impact of emotional support animals on mental health and delves into the science, benefits, legal aspects, and responsibilities of owning an ESA.

Emotional Support Animals

Emotional support animals (ESAs) are not the same as service animals. While service animals, such as guide dogs for the blind, are trained to perform specific tasks for individuals with disabilities, ESAs do not require any specialized training. ESAs provide emotional support, comfort, and companionship to individuals who have been diagnosed with mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, PTSD, or other emotional disorders. Their presence can significantly reduce the symptoms and distress associated with these conditions.

What animals can be emotional support animals?

Emotional support animals can be a wide range of domesticated animals, not limited to traditional pets like dogs and cats. The choice of an ESA is typically based on an individual’s personal preferences, needs, and the recommendations of their licensed mental health professional. Common emotional support animals include:

1.        Dogs: Dogs are one of the most popular choices for emotional support animals due to their loyalty, companionship, and the comfort they provide.

2.        Cats: Cats can be affectionate and soothing companions, making them suitable ESAs for those who prefer feline friends.

3.        Birds: Birds like parrots, canaries, and budgerigars are chosen as ESAs by some individuals for their charming personalities and melodious songs.

4.        Rabbits: Rabbits are known for their gentle and calm demeanor, making them suitable for people who appreciate their quiet companionship.

5.        Guinea Pigs: Guinea pigs are small, low-maintenance animals that can provide comfort and companionship.

6.        Hamsters: Hamsters are small and can be easily accommodated in a living space, making them a suitable choice for some individuals.

7.        Fish: Watching fish swim in an aquarium can be soothing and calming, making them a unique choice for an ESA.

8.        Reptiles: Some people find emotional support from reptiles, such as turtles, snakes, or lizards, and these animals can be ESAs as well.

9.        Small Rodents: Animals like gerbils, mice, and rats can be kept as ESAs and can provide comfort to their owners.

10.      Miniature Horses: In certain cases, miniature horses may be prescribed as emotional support animals. They are considered service animals when trained to perform specific tasks.

It’s important to note that while a wide variety of animals can serve as emotional support animals, there are specific regulations and guidelines to follow when seeking ESA status. Each country may have its own rules and regulations regarding ESAs, so it’s essential to understand the specific requirements in your jurisdiction. Additionally, it’s important to consider the care and well-being of the animal, as providing a safe and healthy environment for your ESA is your responsibility.

What disabilities qualify for an emotional support animal?

In the United States, an emotional support animal (ESA) is not considered a service animal, and there are different regulations governing their use. ESAs are typically recommended for individuals with certain mental health conditions. The qualification for an emotional support animal is based on the presence of a mental or emotional disability, as diagnosed by a licensed mental health professional.

Common mental health conditions that may qualify for an emotional support animal include:

1.        Anxiety Disorders: This can include generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and specific phobias.

2.        Depressive Disorders: This includes conditions like major depressive disorder, persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia), and bipolar disorder.

3.        Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Individuals with PTSD may benefit from the companionship and support of an emotional support animal.

4.        Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): People with OCD may find comfort and relief from symptoms with an ESA.

5.        Other Mood Disorders: Conditions like borderline personality disorder and seasonal affective disorder can also qualify.

It’s important to note that the diagnosis and recommendation for an emotional support animal must come from a licensed mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist. They will evaluate your condition and determine whether an emotional support animal would be beneficial as part of your treatment plan.

Science Behind Emotional Support Animals

The science behind the therapeutic effects of ESAs on mental health is multifaceted and fascinating. Numerous studies have highlighted the physiological, psychological, and emotional benefits of having an ESA. Here, we explore some of the key findings:

1.        Stress Reduction: One of the most significant benefits of having an ESA is the reduction of stress. Interacting with an animal triggers the release of oxytocin, a hormone associated with bonding and reduced stress levels. The act of petting an animal has been shown to lower cortisol levels, a stress hormone, leading to decreased anxiety and improved overall mental well-being.

2.        Improved Mood: Spending time with an ESA can increase the production of serotonin and dopamine, often referred to as “feel-good” neurotransmitters. Higher levels of these chemicals in the brain are associated with improved mood, which can be particularly beneficial for individuals with depression and anxiety.

3.        Social Interaction: ESAs encourage social interaction, as they provide an opportunity for their owners to connect with others. This can be especially valuable for people who struggle with social anxiety, as the presence of an animal often serves as an icebreaker and conversation starter.

4.        Distraction from Negative Thoughts: Emotional support animals can help divert their owner’s attention away from negative and intrusive thoughts. Focusing on the needs and care of the animal provides a positive and fulfilling distraction, which can be especially beneficial for those with conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Benefits of Emotional Support Animals on Mental Health

The benefits of emotional support animals on mental health are extensive, making them a valuable addition to the treatment plans of individuals with various mental health conditions:

1.        Anxiety and Panic Disorders: For those who struggle with anxiety and panic disorders, ESAs offer a source of comfort and reassurance during stressful moments. The soothing presence of an animal can reduce the frequency and severity of panic attacks.

2.        Depression: ESAs provide companionship and can help alleviate the feelings of loneliness and isolation commonly associated with depression. Their unconditional love and attention can provide a sense of purpose and motivation.

3.        Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Many individuals with PTSD experience nightmares, flashbacks, and hypervigilance. ESAs can be trained to sense and interrupt these symptoms, providing a sense of security and helping to improve overall quality of life.

4.        Autism Spectrum Disorders: ESAs can provide a comforting and consistent presence for individuals with autism spectrum disorders. Their calming influence can help reduce sensory overload and promote emotional regulation.

5.        Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Children and adults with ADHD may find it easier to focus and maintain attention when an ESA is present. The routine and responsibility of caring for the animal can also teach valuable organizational skills.

6.        Bipolar Disorder: Emotional support animals can help individuals with bipolar disorder manage the emotional extremes associated with the condition. The stable presence of an ESA can contribute to emotional balance.

Legal Aspects of Emotional Support Animals

Emotional support animals enjoy legal protections in the United States, as defined by the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). These laws grant individuals with mental health conditions the right to have their ESA with them in housing accommodations and when traveling by air, respectively.

1.        Fair Housing Act (FHA): The FHA prohibits housing discrimination against individuals with disabilities, including those with mental health conditions. Landlords must make reasonable accommodations for ESAs, even in properties with no-pet policies.

2.        Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA): The ACAA allows individuals with ESAs to travel with their animals in the cabin of an aircraft, free of charge. Airlines are required to make accommodations for ESAs, as long as certain conditions are met.

However, it is essential to note that individuals seeking the benefits of an ESA must obtain a letter from a qualified mental health professional, such as a therapist or psychiatrist, certifying the need for an emotional support animal. The letter must include specific information about the mental health condition and the therapeutic role of the ESA.

Owning an Emotional Support Animal: Responsibilities and Considerations

While the benefits of owning an emotional support animal are clear, it is equally important to understand the responsibilities and considerations that come with this role:

1.        Legal Documentation: Ensure that you have the necessary documentation from a licensed mental health professional, as mentioned earlier. Without this letter, your ESA may not be recognized as such under the law.

2.        Care and Well-Being: Owning an ESA comes with the responsibility of providing proper care and attention. This includes feeding, grooming, regular exercise, and veterinary care.

3.        Training: Even though ESAs do not require specialized training, it is essential to ensure that your animal is well-behaved and comfortable in various social situations.

4.        Consideration of Others: Not everyone may be comfortable around animals, so it is crucial to be respectful and mindful of others when bringing your ESA into public spaces.

5.        Landlord and Housing Policies: While the FHA protects your right to live with your ESA, it is essential to communicate openly with your landlord or property manager and adhere to any specific rules or guidelines they may have regarding ESAs.

6.        Travel Planning: When traveling with your ESA, make sure to notify the airline in advance and follow their specific requirements. This includes appropriate carrier or containment options for the animal.

7.        Health and Well-Being of the ESA: Regularly assess your ESA’s mental and physical health. A happy and healthy animal will be better equipped to provide emotional support.

Can a landlord limit the number of emotional support animals?

Landlords in the United States may have the right to limit the number of emotional support animals (ESAs) on their properties, typically to ensure that the animals do not create an undue burden on the property or disrupt other tenants.

However, these restrictions must be reasonable and in compliance with federal laws, such as the Fair Housing Act (FHA). The FHA generally allows for reasonable accommodations for ESAs, but landlords may request documentation from a licensed mental health professional to verify the need for each animal. Ultimately, the specifics of any limitation would depend on individual circumstances and should be discussed with legal counsel to ensure compliance with the law.


Emotional support animals have emerged as a valuable and therapeutic resource for individuals struggling with mental health challenges. Their presence can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression while offering companionship and emotional stability. While ESAs enjoy legal protections, individuals must fulfill their responsibilities and consider the needs of the animal and those around them.

The healing power of emotional support animals on mental health is undeniable. The profound bond between humans and their ESAs provides a lifeline to those facing the daily struggles of mental health conditions, offering comfort, companionship, and a path toward improved well-being. As the scientific understanding of this unique relationship continues to evolve, emotional support animals are poised to play an even more prominent role in mental health care in the years to come.


Dr. Oche Otorkpa PG Cert, MPH, PhD

Dr. Oche is a seasoned Public Health specialist who holds a post graduate certificate in Pharmacology and Therapeutics, an MPH, and a PhD both from Texila American University. He is a member of the International Society of Substance Use Professionals and a Fellow of the Royal Society for Public Health in the UK. He authored two books: "The Unseen Terrorist," published by AuthorHouse UK, and "The Night Before I Killed Addiction."
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