Individuals with psychiatric conditions often try many interventions to improve their mental health. Support animals can provide social support, emotional comfort, and other beneficial actions for individuals with these needs. Emotional support animals can play an essential role in mental health treatment plans, and animals that are well-suited for the job can make a real difference for their owners. However, assistance animals have distinct roles with differences that are often not well-understood.
Read on to learn what emotional support animals are, and how they differ from other assistance animals. Then review the mental health benefits of an emotional support animal in more detail.
Research suggests that emotional support animals can benefit individuals with mental health conditions. They are one of several types of assistance animals used for psychiatric care.
An emotional support animal is a pet, and its designation is given via a prescription from a medical doctor as part of its owner’s mental health treatment plan. Animals of any type or age may qualify, as long as they are manageable in public settings. While dogs are a popular choice, any species can be prescribed as a support animal so long as their presence helps relieve or lessen an individual’s psychiatric symptoms. They provide comfort and reduce loneliness, helping individuals manage their symptoms and improve daily functioning. Emotional support animals may be helpful for individuals at home, at their job, or even in school settings.
Service animals undergo rigorous training to perform specific treatment-related tasks for medically recognized disabilities. This may involve detecting harmful symptoms, assisting with medication, and alerting their owners to danger. They are also trained to attend closely to their owners and remain unobtrusive when out in public. Support animals do not go through this type of training and do not perform treatment-related tasks. It is their presence that is therapeutic, rather than trained behaviors. Therefore, they are categorized differently from service animals.
Because of these distinctions, support animals are typically not offered the same accommodations for transportation services and places of business. Some state and local laws are more lenient, though, and buildings must provide “reasonable accommodations” for assistance animals as mandated through the Fair Housing Act, permitting support animals in some specific locations.
However, accommodations for airline travel changed significantly in 2021. That year, the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) implemented a new rule accommodating support animals as pets instead of affording them the same access as service animals. This change was made to further distinguish the protections and functions of service animals.
Emotional support animals are one of several types of assistance animals available for individuals with psychiatric conditions, and each type has its therapeutic focus. While the titles of each kind of assistance animal sound similar, they are not interchangeable. Each type of animal has distinct responsibilities and roles, further distinguishing them from emotional support animals.
Service animals are trained to do specific tasks to detect and reduce the impact of psychiatric episodes, such as those that occur with PTSD, schizophrenia, or depression. They can be trained to do specific mental health care tasks, such as reminding individuals to take medications and providing tactile “grounding” stimulation when anxiety symptoms arise. Because service animals address a specific disability, they are permitted to remain with their owner at all times, including at workplaces and other public places. Federal law only protects and recognizes miniature horses and dogs in this capacity, and to date, 23 states have made the misrepresentation of a service animal an illegal act.
Any species can be utilized as a therapy animal, but dogs are the most common. Therapy animals are privately owned and are not trained to live with or support a specific individual. They are brought to schools, hospitals, and other public places to provide comfort and healing contact. Evidence shows that petting an animal helps release body chemicals that promote well-being and positive mood, reducing loneliness and boredom. These positive impacts may, in turn, support other positive health outcomes.
Crisis response animals are dogs trained to provide comfort and calm distraction in emergency situations, such as the aftermath of natural disasters and acts of terrorism. These dogs have the temperament to tolerate crowded environments and unexpected noises, providing a calming presence for individuals amidst the chaos. Dogs are trained to identify emotional responses that may benefit from a comforting interaction. Individuals may feel stuck in an acute emotional response, and the disarming nature of crisis response dogs helps them relax and feel less distressed. Many crisis response dogs become frequent travelers, responding to crisis scenes across the country as needed.
While psychological interventions can effectively address long-term mental health conditions, positive social support also has significant value. Emotional support animals fill this role in meaningful ways for some individuals managing their condition each day. Research is beginning to take a deeper look into the positive impact of pet ownership, underscoring the mental health benefits of emotional support animals.
Pet ownership prompts behavioral activation, meaning that individuals benefit from doing specific daily activities to care for their animals. Evidence also shows that exercise and interaction with nature promote well-being. Caring for pets, especially dogs, gives individuals opportunities for physical activity and time spent outdoors, improving mobility and mental well-being.
Pet care exposes individuals to others with similar interests, making for an easy entry into conversations and interactions. Individuals taking their animal to the vet may find it easy to strike up a conversation with a fellow pet owner. These additional interactions can be meaningful and positive for individuals who might be socially isolated due to psychological symptoms.
Pet care responsibilities prompt individuals to take action, knowing that their animals depend on them for a healthy life. Attending to their pet’s needs and following their routine can provide periodic symptom distraction, diverting attention away from distressing symptoms or experiences. Also, care tasks introduce frequent opportunities for interactions with their pet, where pets may give and receive affection.
Due to their symptomatology, individuals with mental health conditions often feel ostracized and isolated. Their symptoms often complicate and disrupt relationships, introducing conflict or avoidance in what could otherwise be supportive connections. Animals offer social interaction with no judgment, creating a safe emotional space for their owners to express their thoughts and emotions openly. Pets and support animals do not offer opinions or advice, and they do not share secrets. They can show and receive affection without questioning motives.
Pets that can read emotional cues from their owner are well-suited as emotional support animals. They can sense when physical contact or attention may be soothing, helping individuals with mental health conditions with dysregulated emotions. Instead of struggling to find the most effective coping skill in the moment, individuals can count on their support animal to take the initiative and offer comforting interaction when it is most needed.
Individuals with significant mental health conditions often struggle with their sense of purpose and meaning, especially when symptoms become all-consuming. The responsibilities and benefits of pet ownership can prompt individuals to see themselves differently. Their actions make a real impact on their pet. When their psychological symptoms trigger doubts and fear, focusing on their pet’s needs can be a positive reminder of their worth. And if individuals have had pets before the onset of their condition, maintaining a close connection with animals may help them maintain their sense of identity.
With their comforting presence and intuitive nature, emotional support animals are improving the lives of individuals with psychiatric disorders. They do not have all the same privileges as trained service animals, but support animals play a vital role in helping many individuals maintain daily activities and social engagement. Studies are uncovering more about the therapeutic influence of support animals and the difference they make for individuals with psychiatric needs.