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!




    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.

    Winter Blues

    When the sun goes down earlier and the temperature drops, it feels natural to start “hibernating”. Does hunkering down on the couch under a blanket to read or binge watch tv for hours on end sound familiar? Our eating habits also turn toward starchy and sugary options--and those holiday treat traditions don’t help. So what do you do when these behaviors begin to impact your daily life?


    What is it?

    What was formerly known as Seasonal Affective Disorder is now called Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern. It’s a “specifier” within the Depressive Disorders category (specifiers allow the diagnosing clinician to clarify particular characteristics of a disorder). What does that mean?

    It means that a person can experience symptoms that are commonly associated with depression that align with certain seasons, usually fall and winter. The symptoms have a pattern of emerging at the beginning of cooler, darker seasons, and they recede with the return of warmer, sunnier weather. Some people can experience seasonal depression during spring or summer months.

    • Depressive episodes with a seasonal pattern are often characterized by the following symptoms:
    • Lower than usual energy.
    • Hypersomnia (excessive sleep).
    • Overeating.
    • Increased craving for starchy and sugary foods.
    • Weight gain.



    How can you combat Depressive Disorders with Seasonal Patterns? Here are some helpful suggestions.


     Light Box

    Light therapy boxes are often used to treat seasonal depressive episodes. They emit a light that is similar to the sun, and it’s recommended that the user sits in front of it for about 30 minutes. Consider the following when purchasing a light box:

    • Research! Make sure that the light won’t damage your eyes or skin.
    • Check to see that it filters out UV light to protect your eyes.
    • Talk to your doctor. It’s best to check in with your physician about the most effective products for your experience, as well as their recommended exposure time for you.


    Dawn Simulator

    With the sun rising later and later in the winter months, it can become extremely challenging to wake on time naturally--or with any sort of enthusiasm. Dawn simulators:

    • Are alarm clocks that use full spectrum light instead of sound to gently wake you.
    • Use light that brightens gradually and can be set to take 30 minutes to a couple hours to fully brighten before your wake time.
    • Mimic a natural sunrise, and help you awaken in those darker hours of winter.


    Move It!

    As always, it’s so crucial to not just workout in the summer but to continue your routine through colder months. To stay active, healthy and happy:

    • Do something to raise your heart rate and make you break a sweat for at least 30 minutes each day. Walk, swim, jog, box, play sports, anything! Just move.
    • Spend time outside. Yes, I know it’s cold and it’s probably raining or even snowing*! I know the weather sucks, but push through, the fresh air is great for you and you’ll feel great.
    • Also, you probably won’t melt so bundle up, be safe, and have fun moving your body!



    Dehydration can have a slew of adverse effects on not only your body, but your brain too. Many studies are emerging highlighting the role hydration plays in mental health.

    • Proper hydration has been linked with better mood and improved alertness. It’s vital as an aid for every bodily function.
    • Staying hydrated can help you feel awake, focused, energized, and can curb cravings for starchy, sugary foods.
    • In winter, it’s easy to forget to grab our water bottles before leaving the house. The summer heat serves as a natural reminder but hydrating is just as important when it’s cold--even when you aren’t breaking a sweat.
    • Aim to consume anywhere from 88 to 128 ounces of water daily, depending on your biological sex and how much water you consume from other sources like fruits, vegetables, herbal tea, and low-sodium soup broth.


    Establish an Active Routine

    It’s so tempting to flop on the couch after a long day and commuting home in the dark. Do your best to stay off the couch for as long as possible and keep moving through the evening. Motivate yourself to:

    • Make a healthy dinner, do some cleaning, go for an evening stroll, and save couch time for the very end of your night.
    • Keep moving throughout your day, getting up at least once every hour to stretch your limbs and your back.


    Eat Healthy

    You know the drill here.

    • Welcome fruits, veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins while enjoying simple carbohydrates (baked goods, cereals, sugar, white bread/pasta, soda, candy, etc) sparsely and in small amounts.
    • Simple carbohydrates zap you of energy and can have a serious impact on your mood.



    Consult with your primary care physician about taking supplements, such as Vitamin D, to assist with symptoms of seasonal depressive episodes.

    • Remember that vitamins and other supplements should be taken as carefully as other medication.
    • Please talk with your physician before starting any supplement regimen, and research the manufacturer thoroughly, as they are not closely regulated like other medication manufacturers.



    Processing and tracking your symptoms of seasonal depressive episodes throughout the season can be very helpful in better understanding yourself and your needs. These symptoms can make relationships, jobs, and general daily living more difficult to maintain and manage. It can be helpful to work through these new challenges in regular therapy sessions.


    Seasonal depressive episodes are very real and can impact your life in significant ways, especially for folks here in the gloomy Pacific Northwest. Take a moment to reflect on past seasons and whether the symptoms of seasonal depressive episode resonate with your experience. If so, please reach out to a licensed mental health professional soon. There’s plenty of hope for you to stay healthy and energized through the darkest months!



    *Advances in clothing technology has resulted in some fantastic options for attractive, lightweight, thermal clothing to keep you warm in winter. What’s more is there are options that are possible for most every budget!