What Are the Mental Health Benefits of Emotional Support Animals?

What Are the Mental Health Benefits of Emotional Support Animals?

Updated on July 11, 2023
Written by ESA Pet Staff

fact checked by Esa Pet Staff

Are you struggling with a mental health condition like anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? An emotional support animal can help to ease some of your symptoms.

Emotional support animals are pets that offer their owners companionship, comfort, and support. In recent years, ESAs have become more popular as a treatment option for mental health issues without using medication.

In this article, we will discuss the many benefits of emotional support animals and how having one can improve your mental health.

How Do Emotional Support Animals Improve Mental Health?

Emotional Support Animals, also known as ESAs, are pets that qualified mental health professionals recommend to their owners to help them cope with emotional or mental health challenges. These pets provide unwavering support and comfort, which can reduce the symptoms of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.

ESAs don’t need to be trained to perform specific tasks. Their mere presence can have a therapeutic effect on their owners. Dogs and cats are the most common types of ESAs, but other animals can also qualify. Some people even use miniature horses as ESAs.

Overall, having an emotional support animal can improve your mental health and overall well-being. Here are some specific ways in which ESAs can help:

Interacting With Pets Reduces Depression and Anxiety

Spending time with an ESA can help reduce anxiety and depression symptoms. ESAs provide a sense of comfort and companionship, which can help to alleviate feelings of loneliness and isolation, and in turn, reduce stress levels.

Interacting with pets can also lead to an increase in the production of “feel-good” hormones, such as oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin, which can help to reduce depression and anxiety symptoms.

Pets Reduce the Risk of Heart Disease

Pet ownership is associated with lower blood pressure, reduced levels of stress levels, and improved overall cardiovascular health. Lower levels of anxiety and stress can help to lower the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

In addition, having a pet around the house can help motivate you to exercise more. Pets require regular exercise, such as going for walks and playing games. These exercises can be beneficial for maintaining a healthy heart.

Pets Help Produce Neurotransmitters

Having pets can help produce neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters regulate things like mood and behavior. Pets positively impact people’s mental health by increasing the production of several neurotransmitters, including dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in motivation and feelings of happiness, while serotonin regulates mood and social behavior. Oxytocin, on the other hand, is often referred to as the “love hormone.” It is released when we bond with someone or something, such as our pets.

Interacting with a pet can increase dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin levels in the brain, providing several mental health benefits.

Pets Give Unconditional Love

Pets are known for their loyalty and affection towards their owners, and they can provide a sense of unconditional love that is difficult to find elsewhere. They often form strong bonds with their human companions and can sense when their owners are feeling down or upset. This can be particularly important for people who feel isolated or lonely, as pets can provide a constant source of emotional support and comfort.

Unlike human relationships, pets do not judge or criticize their owners. They do not hold grudges or harbor negative feelings. They simply love their owners for who they are, regardless of their flaws or imperfections.

ESAs Complement Conventional Medical Care

While conventional medical treatments, such as medication and therapy, can be effective in treating mental health conditions, ESAs can provide additional support that may not be achievable through conventional care alone.

For example, ESAs can provide a sense of routine and purpose, which can be especially beneficial for people with conditions like depression. When a person is feeling depressed, it can be difficult to find the motivation to engage in daily activities. Caring for an animal, such as feeding them, walking them, and spending time with them, can provide a sense of structure to the day.

However, it is important to note that ESAs are not a substitute for medical care. While they can provide additional benefits, they should be used in conjunction with other treatments recommended by a healthcare professional.

ESAs Can Help Manage Strong Emotions

Emotional support animals can help people manage their strong emotions during difficult times. Many pet owners find that spending time with their pets can help them feel happier and more at ease.

ESAs can act as stress-relievers, providing a source of joy and helping people forget about their intense emotions. For those dealing with ADHD, having an Emotional Support Animal (ESA) is a solid option. They assist in keeping your daily routine on track and sticking to a regular schedule, while also providing various other perks for your overall mental well-being.

Pets Provide Social Support

Pets can provide support in several ways that can be helpful for people with social anxiety. For example, when walking a dog in a public place, people are more likely to approach and engage with the pet owner. This can provide opportunities for people with social anxiety to practice their social skills and build confidence in interacting with others. Additionally, the presence of a pet can provide a sense of security and comfort, which can help to reduce feelings of anxiety.

Who Can Benefit the Most from Emotional Support Animals?

Emotional support animals can be beneficial for a wide range of people, especially those who struggle with mental health issues.

Here are some people who may benefit from a therapy animal like an ESA:

At-Risk Children and Teens

Emotional support animals (ESAs) can be beneficial for at-risk children and teens who may be dealing with emotional or behavioral issues. For children and teens who may be struggling with feelings of isolation, an ESA can be a source of non-judgmental emotional support that can promote a sense of self-worth and belonging.

ESAs can also help to teach responsibility, empathy, and nurturing skills, which can be especially beneficial for children and teens who may be dealing with trauma or difficult life circumstances.

University Students

University can be a stressful and challenging time, and many students may struggle with anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions. Emotional support animals can provide much-needed support and companionship during overwhelming situations.

Additionally, having an ESA can help to create a daily routine, which can be especially important for students struggling with time management.

Psychiatric Patients

Emotional support animals can be an important component of treatment for psychiatric patients. Interacting with a psychiatric service dog can help to reduce symptoms of mental disability and can provide a sense of connection to the treatment team.

Furthermore, the companionship and unconditional love provided by an ESA can help patients feel less alone, especially those with an emotional psychiatric disability.

Overall, emotional support animals can be a valuable addition to the treatment plan for psychiatric patients, offering both emotional support and practical benefits.

War Veterans

War veterans may also benefit from having an emotional support animal as part of their treatment plan. Many veterans may struggle with PTSD, anxiety, or depression as a result of their service.

ESAs can help veterans cope with their symptoms and provide a sense of comfort and companionship that can be especially important for those who may feel disconnected from others.

Prison Inmates

Finally, emotional support animals can be beneficial for prison inmates who may be dealing with a range of emotional or behavioral challenges. ESAs can provide a sense of emotional support and companionship that may be lacking in the prison environment.

They can also be used as a form of therapy or as part of a rehabilitation program, helping inmates learn empathy, responsibility, and other skills that may be beneficial for their overall well-being and reintegration into society.

Emotional Support Animals vs Service Animals: What’s the Difference?

Emotional support animals (ESAs) and service animals both provide animal-assisted therapy to someone with a mental illness or disability, but there are important differences between the two.

It is recommended that individuals consult with a licensed mental health professional to determine which type of assistance animal may be most beneficial for their situation.

Emotional Support Animals

Emotional support animals are pets that provide comfort and emotional support to individuals with mental or emotional disabilities. For example, they can help people suffering from anxiety, depression, PTSD, and certain phobias.

ESAs do not need any specialized training, but they must be prescribed by licensed mental health professionals. While an emotional support dog is most common, ESAs can be other types of animals as well, such as cats, rabbits, birds, miniature horses, etc.

For the most part, emotional support animals are not permitted in public places like restaurants or grocery stores, but they are allowed to live in housing that otherwise might not allow pets. Some airlines accommodate ESAs for no additional cost, but this is not a requirement.

Service Animals

Service animals, on the other hand, are assistance animals that are specially trained to perform tasks or services for individuals with disabilities. Only a dog can be a service animal, but it can be any breed or type. Additionally, there are no size or weight requirements for service dogs.

Service dogs are trained to do specific tasks to help with their owner’s disability. For example, they can be trained to guide individuals with visual impairments and help them navigate through an unfamiliar environment. Service dogs can also alert individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing, assist individuals with mobility impairments, detect and respond to medical emergencies, and much more.

Furthermore, a psychiatric service dog is specifically trained to help someone with an emotional or psychiatric disability. They can provide comfort, assistance with coping mechanisms, and even interrupt self-harm behavior.

Service animals are allowed to accompany their owners in all public places, including restaurants, stores, and public transportation.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and The Fair Housing Act (FHA)

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in areas such as employment, transportation, and public accommodations. The ADA covers the use of service animals by individuals with disabilities.

Unlike service animals, emotional support animals are not covered under the ADA. But, they are protected under the Fair Housing Act (FHA). The FHA provides protection for individuals who have an ESA. They may request reasonable accommodation from their landlord or housing provider in order to keep the animal in their housing unit.

How Can You Qualify for an Emotional Support Animal?

If you’re currently dealing with an emotional or mental health issue, having an emotional support animal by your side could help manage the symptoms and benefit your overall health and mental well-being.

The process of qualifying for an emotional support animal (ESA) typically involves the following steps:

  1. Determine if You Have a Qualifying Mental Health Condition: The first step in qualifying for an emotional support animal is to determine whether you have a qualifying mental illness. Emotional support animals are prescribed by healthcare professionals to individuals with certain mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or phobias. If you are experiencing symptoms that affect your daily life, you may be a candidate for an ESA.
  2. Speak With a Mental Health Professional: Next, you will need to speak with a licensed healthcare professional, such as a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. They can provide you with an official diagnosis, which is necessary to qualify for an emotional support animal.
  3. Request an ESA letter: To qualify for an ESA, you will need to obtain a recommendation letter from a licensed healthcare professional. The letter should state that you have a mental health condition that substantially limits one or more major life activities and that an ESA is part of your treatment plan.
  4. Ensure That the ESA Letter Meets the Necessary Requirements: The letter should be on the healthcare professional’s letterhead and include their contact information, as well as the date and their signature. It should also state that you have a disability and that the ESA is necessary to provide you with emotional support. Your specific disability does not need to be included.
  5. Register Your Animal: While registration is not required by law, some individuals choose to register their ESA with a third-party organization or website to obtain a certificate or identification card. It is important to note that these registries do not provide any legal protections or guarantee that your ESA will be allowed in all public places.
  6. Understand Your Rights and Responsibilities as an ESA Pet Owner: Once you have a qualifying letter from a healthcare professional, you have the right to request reasonable accommodation from housing providers or airlines to keep your ESA with you. However, it is important to understand that you are responsible for the care and behavior of your ESA and that you may be held liable for any damages or injuries caused by the animal.

Ultimately, to qualify for an emotional support animal, you will need to have a qualifying mental health condition, obtain an ESA letter from a licensed healthcare professional, ensure that the letter meets the requirements, consider registering your ESA, and understand your rights and responsibilities as an ESA owner.

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Where Can I Bring My Emotional Support Animal?


Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) Normal Pets Service Animals
Definition An animal that provides emotional support and comfort to its owner but is not trained to perform specific tasks for a disability A pet that is not trained to perform specific tasks for a disability or provide emotional support An animal that is specifically trained to perform tasks for a person with a disability
Housing Yes, with proper documentation and notification to the landlord Varies by landlord and location Yes, with proper documentation and notification to the landlord
Public Places Varies by location and establishment policy Varies by location and establishment policy Yes, with proper documentation
Airplanes Yes, with certain restrictions and fees Yes, with certain restrictions and fees Yes, with proper documentation and notification to the airline.


It is important to note that the table above is a general guideline and that each situation may be different. It is always recommended to check with the specific establishment to learn about their policies and requirements regarding therapy animals.

Additionally, while emotional support animals may be allowed in certain situations with approval, they are not entitled to the same legal protections as service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Bottom Line

There are numerous emotional support animal benefits, especially for pet owners with certain mental health conditions. For example, they can help reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

ESAs provide emotional support to their owners by providing a sense of comfort, companionship, and security. They can help reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation, increase socialization, and provide a sense of purpose and responsibility.

To qualify for an ESA, a healthcare professional will need to evaluate your mental health and determine if you have a qualifying condition that can benefit from the companionship of an ESA. If your healthcare professional determines that an ESA would be helpful for your mental health, they will issue you an ESA letter.

While ESAs are not a substitute for professional mental health treatment, they can be a valuable part of a treatment plan for individuals with certain mental health conditions.