Do You Need an Emotional Support Animal? Here's What to Know


If you’ve ever had a pet, you know how comforting its presence can be. After all, it’s hard to dwell on a tough day when a cat or dog is cuddled up beside you. “It’s true that animals act almost like a biological spa treatment,” says Aubrey H. Fine, EdD, professor emeritus and a licensed psychologist at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona. And there’s tons of research to back this up: Studies have found that being in contact with animals can reduce blood pressure, lower cortisol levels, and even release a surge of oxytocin. Because of all this, more people than ever are using their pets as emotional support animals (ESA).

RELATED: What's the Difference Between an Emotional Support Animal and a Service Dog?

Learn the Difference

“These are pets who have been deemed necessary to help support an individual’s quality of life,” says Fine. The individuals typically are struggling with mental health issues, like anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress, and find comfort in a bond with their pets. Emotional support animals are different from both therapy dogs, who go to institutions to comfort others, and service dogs, who are trained to perform tasks specific to an owner’s disability. “Emotional support animals do not have to be trained to do anything. They simply act as a security blanket,” says Renee Payne, CPDT-KA, director of training at the Good Dog Foundation.

RELATED: Science Says Being a Cat Lady Is Good for Your Health

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Understand Your Rights

Unlike a service dog, emotional support animals aren’t allowed everywhere. For example, most restaurants and retailers will not allow your pet in—and they are not legally required to. However, you are legally allowed to fly with your ESA, thanks to the Air Carrier Access Act. Additionally, the Fair Housing Act ensures your ESA can always live with you. You cannot be charged extra, denied from application, or evicted because of your animal. These laws were put in place to make sure you are getting the emotional support needed. “For certain people, having an emotional support animal is critical for their well being,” says Fine.

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