Emotional support animals (ESAs) are animals, usually dogs, that assist people with mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD, and schizophrenia. These animals provide security, companionship, and calmness that their owners can’t always provide for themselves.

Emotional support animals have been around for centuries, but modern ESAs are trained as specialists to provide 24/7 support. It’s important to realize that ESAs are not pets and cannot be treated as such. They are working animals in exactly the same way as sheepdogs or police horses, so they shouldn’t be distracted by petting or treats. They are legally recognized and as such it is a criminal offense to decline entry to an ESA in a public place, showing just how important they are to those who need them.  So, what do they do?

Improve Health

Emotional support animals can help those with physical illnesses live a more fulfilling life. They can help you improve your well-being, and some studies show that ESAs can lower blood pressure and boost one’s immune system. Many people with physical health impairments also rely on ESAs to help them lead safer lives. They can be trained for a variety of tasks, like retrieving the phone or fetching help if you’ve fallen, which can reduce the chance of injury or even save a life. Often, ESAs also need exercising, which helps the owner to increase their own levels of physical activity.

Improve Mental Health

Emotional support animals provide emotional comfort and companionship to people who cannot otherwise adequately cope with their mental health problems. The companion animal acts as a “guardian angel” that helps to make the owner more socially integrated and helps them cope with emotional distress. ESAs are particularly good at recognizing and preventing panic attacks in those with panic disorder and anxiety, whilst they act as a lifeline for those suffering from PTSD.

Trauma Support

Anyone who’s dealt with any type of loss—whether it’s losing a loved one, a best friend, a pet, a job, a home, or anything else—knows how devastating it can be. People who experience trauma of any kind can also be left feeling helpless and hopeless, which can lead to depression and other emotional problems. The good news is that ESAs can provide comfort to people who are dealing with difficult situations, reducing the chances of self-harm.

Are Emotional Support Animals Pets?

As mentioned above, emotional support animals are not pets, but they provide many of the same benefits, albeit in a highly specialized way. In the US, ESAs are granted service animal status, meaning they are given full access to shops, cafes, restaurants, hospitals, and public transport, amongst other public places. Refusing to grant entry to an ESA is a breach of the law and constitutes discrimination against disabled people. Pets, meanwhile, are not granted these rights – many ESAs have their own official ID to prove their identity as an ESA, which is something a pet does not have. 

Can I Own an ESA?

If you have a diagnosed disability, you may be eligible to have an emotional support animal. If you are not diagnosed with a disability, it is not possible to obtain an ESA. ESAs take months to fully train, so they are only available to people who really need them. If you feel you need an ESA, you will undergo a medical examination to determine your needs, but depending on the severity of your disability, you may not be able to obtain one.

What Are My ESAs Housing Rights?

An emotional support animal is a service animal under the 1968 Fair Housing Act. The Fair Housing Act was passed in the US to ensure that people with disabilities are not discriminated against in housing. This ensures that those living in rented or emergency accommodations can still access the same housing as those without a disability with no barriers to entry. In rented housing, it means landlords cannot refuse tenancy, even if they have a no pets policy. In emergency accommodation, staff cannot stop you or your ESA from gaining entry. Technically, staff should not question you or make it difficult for you to enter, as this could constitute discrimination, but it’s best for your ESA to always wear their uniform and ID to make it clear that they are service animals.

ESA vs. Service Animal

In some countries, like the UK, the government has not yet recognized ESAs as service animals, despite widespread criticism of their stance. Service animals are animals trained to help individuals with disabilities, such as blindness, deafness, or diabetes. In the US, this includes mental health disabilities, allowing ESAs to be fully classified as service animals. Federal law defines service animals as those animals that are trained individually to do tasks for an individual with disabilities, including psychiatric, intellectual, physical, sensory, or emotional disabilities.

ESAs help an individual to cope with their daily struggles. It’s not easy to have mental and physical disabilities. Luckily, emotional support animals can help you.

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