Many people are familiar with the practice of pet therapy, as well as service animals, but I’ve noticed a rise in both the benefits and recognition of a newer category of animals known as emotional support animals (ESA). Emotional support animals are not trained to perform specific tasks for their owners in the same way that service animals are. Service animals may be trained to do things that help people with mobility and sensory conditions or other disabilities, and they are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which means that they legally are allowed at any public place that their owner goes and receive protections from housing discrimination, among other legal protections. They specifically do things that the individual cannot do for themselves, such as guiding or alerting people, picking up objects, responding to PTSD symptoms under duress, or assisting with other tasks. Emotional Support Animals are not specifically trained to do these things, but may otherwise provide comfort and reduce distress in conditions such as anxiety and depression. ESAs are not service animals and are not covered under the ADA. Nevertheless, emotional support animals can be an important and legitimate tool for people who experience relief from distress when spending time with and receiving affection from their animals.
The benefits of service animals are considered a necessary aid to people with special needs. We have long been accepting of service animals in public places (I once saw a woman with a service pony in a Target), and more recently have increased the training and accessibility of service animals for veterans through different programs specifically targeted for veterans with physical or mental health injuries. However, despite these socially acceptable and recognized benefits, people with less severe conditions are sometimes mocked or dismissed when claiming the need for an emotional support animal. It’s true that with any specially recognized category there is potential for abuse by people without true needs who want to claim benefits. Yet just because someone’s condition doesn’t necessarily disable them, this doesn’t mean that their ESA isn’t providing a true benefit to them.
Many people who are high functioning have learned to cover their conditions well, and continue to work and engage in other areas of their lives while still suffering from depression or anxiety in private. When an ESA can provide some relief from these symptoms and comfort to those who are suffering, I can find little reason to deny people the right to maintain access to their animals. Mostly, people with ESAs simply want access to housing that they may otherwise be denied if they want to bring their animal with them. Apartment complexes with no pet policies will usually allow ESA animals with documentation from a medical or mental health provider certifying the need for an ESA, whereas they would be legally required to do so under the ADA with a certified service animal.
An emotional support animal is more than a pet. While from the outside it may look as though someone is functioning just fine, you don’t know what symptoms a person may be experiencing privately. Anyone who has loved an animal can attest to the very real comfort and companionship they provide. An ESA can be an invaluable tool for people with anxiety, depression, or other related conditions that helps them improve their quality of life and cope with their symptoms. With proper training and care, there is little downside to accepting ESAs more openly in our society and reducing the stigma towards people who use them responsibly. Even if you do not need an ESA or suffer from a mental health condition, your relationship with your pet is meaningful and can improve your quality of life. Bonding with an animal helps you focus on the needs of another being, and they can reward you with affection and unconditional love. If you want to learn more about ESAs, visit therapypet.org.