The Truth about Emotional Support Animals


Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) are becoming increasingly more common, but a lot of people still seem to be unsure about what they are, how and if they differ from Service Animals, and the benefits they bring to their owners. So let’s clear some of this up!


An Emotional Support Animal provides a therapeutic benefit to individuals with emotional or psychological “disabilities”. This can include people diagnosed with depressive disorders, anxiety or panic disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and more by a licensed mental health provider.

This means you’re looking for a counselor, therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist with some of these letters after their names:

  • LMHC (Licensed Mental Health Counselor)
  • LPC (Licensed Professional Counselor)
  • LMFT (Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist)
  • LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker)
  • PsyD (Doctorate of Psychology)
  • PhD (Doctorate degree in psychology or other related field)
  • MD (Doctor of Medicine, specializing in psychiatry)


How Are ESAs Different From Service Animals?

Here are some of the differences between ESAs and Service Animals:

    ADA Approved Service Animals

    • As of 2011 only dogs are recognized as Service Animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)       **Separate ADA regulations exist for miniature horses as service animals.
    • Individually trained (not necessarily professionally) to perform tasks for people with disabilities. These tasks are directly related to the person's disability
    • Protected by ADA, FHAA, and the ACAA
    • Are allowed access to apartments, airplanes, AND public spaces, such as restaurants, movie theaters, and stores where other animals are not usually permitted, as long as it doesn't pose a direct threat to public health & safety.

    Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)

    • No specific species: ESAs can be a cat, dog, or other species of animal
    • Not specifically trained to perform certain tasks
    • Protected by the Fair Housing Amendment Act (FHAA) and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA)
    • Allowed access only to apartments (even those with no-pet or breed/weigh discriminatory policies) and on airplanes with necessary documentation





    Here are some similarities of ESAs and Service Animals

    • Not required to wear a vest or other identifying accessories
    • Must be able to behave appropriately in public
    • Can be any breed of dog (remember Service Animals are just dogs, ESAs can be other species)

    One of the biggest differences between what qualifies as an Emotional Support Animal and a Service Animal is how they are trained. If an animal is specifically trained to sense a panic or anxiety attack and take action to avoid or de-escalate it, then that animal would qualify under the ADA as a Service Animal. This is because the animal is trained to perform a task (stop or decrease intensity of the oncoming anxiety or panic attack) that is directly related to the disability (anxiety or panic disorder, in this case).


    What Benefits Do ESAs Provide?

    ESAs can simply be an animal companion to their human with an emotional or psychological disability. The ESA’s presence provides the owner with emotional support, which helps them function more effectively in their homes and while traveling.

    Additionally, ESAs can be used in Animal Assisted Therapy or as part of other psychotherapeutic or medical treatments.


    ESAs & Housing

    • A housing provider’s “no-pet policy” does not apply to ESAs.
    • Other animals in the residence who are not designated ESAs are subject to this kind of policy.
    • Breed and/or weight discriminatory policies do not apply to an ESA.
    • Pet deposits and fees required by a housing provider do not apply to ESAs.
    • Waiving policies, fees, and deposits for an ESA is considered a reasonable accommodation and requires documentation from one of those professionals mentioned earlier.
    • The housing provider CANNOT ask for details about your disability, only that one exists for you and the animal provides emotional support
    • You can still be charged fees for any damage caused by the animal
    • If your animal is not housebroken or is not behaving appropriately in common areas, you can be asked to find more private routes in and out of your building
    • Allergies are not a reason for a “reasonable request for accommodation” to be denied. For cases of other residents with severe allergies, housing providers will work to limit interaction between the person with a severe allergy and the person with an ESA.

    ESAs & Air Carriers

    • An airline’s size or breed restrictions for pets do not apply to ESAs UNLESS they are too large or heavy to be accommodated in the cabin according to animal health and safety regulations.
    • Airlines are not required to permit snakes, rodents, spiders, reptiles, or ferrets.
    • Airlines can require specific documentation (dated within 1 year) and/or 48 hours notice for ESAs
    • Keep in mind, the protections from the ACAA only apply to U.S. airlines. Foreign airlines do not have to comply with the ACAA and may have different laws or regulations.


    How Can My Animal Become an ESA?

    Despite many sites popping up claiming to help you “register” your animal as an ESA, there is no official registry for this. Beware of these kinds of sites.

    If you believe you believe symptoms you’re experiencing align with a psychological or emotional disorder and want your pet as an ESA:

    • Find a licensed therapist, counselor, or psychiatrist qualified to make that kind of diagnosis and provide the help you need
    • Look for someone experienced in documentation for ESAs
    • After establishing the therapeutic relationship and determining your symptoms do align with a psychological disorder, ask your provider for documentation for your housing provider or airline to request a reasonable accommodation from them.


    If you are not flying with your animal and do not have extra fees or limitations related to having your animal in your residence, it is unlikely you will need any documentation and can continue receiving the emotional support you receive from your animal!




    Movement & Mental Health

    It's something we all pretty much know by now. You should eat your veggies and exercise regularly. Although it's not groundbreaking that healthy choices like exercising consistently improve the health of our bodies, it's important for us to remember that exercising is so important for the health of your brain and general emotional health too!

    Photo by  "Fit Approach"  used with CC License 2.0

    Photo by "Fit Approach" used with CC License 2.0

    Stress Relief & Self-Care

    Exercise is one of the top recommendations I make for my clients to include in their self-care routine. Yes, bubble baths are nice and relaxing, but ramping up your heart rate in a sweaty workout actually has more benefits for dealing with stress. 

    When you exercise, the concentrations of norepinephrine in your brain increase. Norepinephrine is a hormone and neurotransmitter secreted during times of stress. According to this article by the American Psychological Association, it is posited that increasing the norepinephrine in your brain through regular exercise allows your body to practice handling stress and therefore improves its ability to do so. When we become less active, our body becomes less efficient at responding to stress.

    Anxiety & Depression

    When we exercise, our bodies release endorphins, which are responsible for what is referred to as exercise-induced euphoria. Having this kind of experience daily as a result of exercise can enhance our general sense of well-being. That paired with the enhanced ability to cope with stress can help provide relief from symptoms of depression and anxiety.

    Exercising also puts you in a state where you are more focused on what you need to make your body do rather than the million thoughts that run through your mind all the time. In short, exercising forces you into a state where you are more mindful of the present moment (check out my other articles to learn more about the benefits of mindfulness).

    Brain Performance & Health

    Many studies support that cardiovascular exercise can help generate new brain cells, a process called neurogenesis, which improves the brain's functions of learning and memory. Exercise-inducted neurogenesis has also been supported as helpful in preventing or reducing the impacts of neurological disorders related to cognitive decline, such as Alzheimer's disease.

    On top of this, physical exercise has long been linked with improvement in your brain's ability to focus, as well as learn and remember. As such, physical exercise is often encouraged as a part of treatment for individuals diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). It's also just helpful in performing better in school, work, and everyday interactions!

    Socializing & Confidence

    Socializing with others is an important aspect of living an emotionally healthy life and exercising is a great way to meet new people. Whether you're a regular in fitness classes (CrossFit, Barre, spin class, Zumba, yoga, etc.), using equipment at your local gym, or going for walk around your neighborhood, engaging in exercise increases your chance of seeing other people and maybe even exchanging a smile, boosting your mood. Working out with others quickly builds a sense of camaraderie and community, decreasing inhibitions we may experience in other kinds of social interactions.

    Improved senses of self-confidence and self-esteem are well-supported benefits of exercise. When you exercise, regardless of the activity, your age, or your weight, you start setting goals for yourself. If you stick with it, you'll undoubtedly start to watch yourself achieve them, set bigger ones, and feel more accomplished and capable in general.



    Exercise isn't just helpful at making your clothes fit better and the number on the scale go down. It's a vital part of maintaining your mental health, too. So if you're starting to feel yourself slide on any fitness or health-related goals set at the beginning of the year, try not to worry or give up. Just get back in those stretchy pants and move your body! 


    The Problem with Mindfulness

    In recent years, Mindfulness Practice has gotten a lot of attention. It is part of recommended treatments for everything: from anxiety and depression (see archived articles on this blog) to cancer and pain management. There are numerous physical and mental health benefits from mindfulness meditation, and it is practically risk-free, so what could be the problem?


    Despite my obvious affection for it, I do take issue with how mindfulness meditation is sometimes approached, particularly considering its growing popularity. People hear how effectively it helps high stress--and other conditions--so they download apps or stream videos on YouTube and give it a whirl! Though these resources house fantastic guided mindfulness practices, this is often where the problem begins.

    Mindfulness is defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn as, “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally”. When mindfulness meditation is practiced with the focus on relieving stress, it can frequently have the opposite effect. We start setting expectations for ourselves and for mindfulness, like:

    • “I should be able to do this, it’s so simple”
    • “This is supposed to be relaxing. Why don’t I feel relaxed?”
    • “This isn’t working. There must be something wrong with me”
    • “I’ve done this a few times now and I’m still depressed/anxious/stressed. I knew this wouldn’t work.”

    When this happens, we lose sight of the fact that mindfulness is meant to be practiced with the sole expectation of being present in that moment, nonjudgmentally. That’s the goal. All the other things are wonderful, helpful, fantastic side effects.

    So if you’ve given up on the idea that mindfulness could be for you, or if you’ve tried practicing mindfulness and thought it was ineffective, I urge you to reconsider.

    Try starting with the sole aim of paying attention to the present moment, without judgment. It sounds simple but this goal is plenty lofty.