Pet lovers can attest to how much unconditional love and joy their pets give them. Even the toughest person can quickly fall in love with a furry pal. This is why many licensed mental health professionals now recognize the benefits of emotional support animals in overcoming a mental illness.

Even renowned psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud was no stranger to this type of therapy. In fact, his chow-chow dog Jofi was often present in his therapy sessions with some of his patients.

Why so? Because being around pets increases happy hormones. This explains the feelings of tenderness and affection that you get when you see a cute puppy.

This article aims to answer how animals help with people’s mental wellness, who can benefit from it the most, the science behind it, and how to qualify for an emotional support animal.

Emotional Support Animal vs. Service Animals

First of all, what is the difference between an emotional support animal and a service animal? Many people use these two terms interchangeably, but they are different.

A service dog is a trained dog to assist or guide a person with a disability (physical, intellectual, sensory, or mental disability). Under the Americans With Disabilities Act, service dogs or service animals can guide the blind and are trained to assist persons with disabilities in performing everyday tasks. Service animals are trained to pull a wheelchair, retrieve dropped items, alert a person to sounds, press the elevator button, and even remind their human when it’s time to take their medication.

Emotional support animals can be dogs, cats, birds, or reptiles. An emotional support animal (ESA) provides a therapeutic effect to the owner through companionship. The animal provides comfort to persons with mental health decline or a psychiatric illness. 

How Emotional Support Animals Improve Mental Health

Mental health professionals note vast improvements in patients with a mental illness thanks to the animal’s emotional support. Here are the mental health benefits of having an ESA: 

1. They Provide Mental and Emotional Encouragement

Emotional support animals provide comfort to owners with mental health issues, especially to those who have:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Specific phobias like agoraphobia and aerophobia
  • Depression 

2. They Help You Produce Neurotransmitters

Studies show that animals, especially dogs, help humans produce neurotransmitters that make them happy. Dogs increase the neurochemicals in the brain called dopamine. This is the neurochemical associated with love, bonding, and pleasure. Research shows that when pet owners look at their dogs’ eyes, they feel love and happiness.

When you take care of another living being or a pet, your capacity to love increases, and you feel less depressed. People suffering from loneliness feel safer and loved when they have an animal around. No wonder there are paw parents and fur babies because the attachment of pet owners involves love. 

3. They Calm Anxiety on Planes

As mentioned earlier, ESAs can help people with specific phobias, such as aerophobia (fear of flying in airplanes). Some people find it an excruciating experience to travel on planes. Aerophobia is a real disorder. This is why some airlines are now allowing aerophobic passengers to travel with pets inside the aircraft.

During the flight, an emotional support animal can provide support by reducing anxiety. People with aerophobia may feel overwhelmed during a flight, and hugging or holding their pet may reduce the feelings of anxiety. If you have a fear of flying, consider traveling with an ESA. 

4. They Give Unconditional Love

Animals can feel love and give love, too. The truth is that animals provide unconditional love. They give love unconditionally to people struggling with mental health decline or an illness like depression or grief. With the unconditional love provided by these animals, a person will feel loved and get back on their feet after a difficult emotional experience.

Feeling loved can dramatically improve a person’s overall mental health. This is important for a person to re-engage with the people around them, form loving relationships, and have more meaningful relationships with their loved ones. 

5. Animal Therapy Works in Conjunction with Other Forms of Treatment

Therapists or counselors are becoming more aware that emotional support animals work in concert with other forms of treatment to overcome mental illness. It’s like advising patients to exercise and eat nutritious food to control the symptoms of a mental health problem or avoid depression.

ESAs are used in conjunction with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Pets are also utilized for mindfulness techniques, to help patients find a sense of purpose, encourage people to spend more time outdoors (by walking their dog), and help individuals feel safe during highly stressful events. Whichever form of therapy works for you, you will find that emotional safe haven you need when you incorporate an ESA into your treatment plan. 

6. They Can Help Stabilize Intense Emotions

During tough times, emotional support animals can help individuals stabilize intense emotions. Pet owners say that when they’re feeling down or are tired from a long day at work, they feel happier when they get home and see their pets. They’re like children who are stress busters.

No matter how anxious or scared you are, bonding time with your pet will always be a happy moment. When your pet does silly and cute things, you forget about all the intense emotions you had before spending time with your pet. 

7. They Provide Social Support

Most families consider their pets as family members. Why? Because even though they’re animals, they provide social support.

Each person needs a social companion to meet their emotional and mental health needs. When you’re living alone and feeling lonely, having an ESA feels like having a friend around. Having a pet, especially a dog, gives you a reason to go out for a walk, maybe a run, or spend time outdoors. These are all good for your mental well-being. 

Who Can Benefit the Most from Emotional Support Animals?

Emotional comfort is an important contributing factor to why people want emotional support animals. They support those who are in emotional distress or struggling with mental problems. If psychiatrists prescribe medications to ease the symptoms of an illness, therapists suggest getting or being around an animal for emotional support. But who can benefit the most from emotional support animals?

1. Children and Teens Who Are at Risk for Depression

Studies show that children or teens with pets have a decreased risk of developing depression and other mental health conditions. Children who experience trauma or have parents divorcing are at risk for mental conditions.

According to research, when young people are given pets and take care of them, they develop a sense of companionship and responsibility and benefit from a positive emotional response. 

2. Psychiatric Patients

Psychiatric patients can benefit the most from the companionship of an emotional support animal. It was found that, after ten weekly sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy in conjunction with having an ESA, psychiatric patients diagnosed with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder have improved quality of life, better motivation, and were found to be productive in their leisure time.

3. War Veterans and Active-Duty Soldiers

War veterans and active-duty soldiers with PTSD found it beneficial to take care of service dogs or K9s. ESAs among war veterans and soldiers have been shown to help improve sleeping patterns and parenting skills and lower startle rates caused by post-traumatic stress disorder.

During a stressful encounter, the presence of dogs makes the owner feel safe and realize that they are no longer in a threatening situation. 

4. Prison Inmates

Prison inmates are prone to emotional and mental health distress. They miss their families, are worried about their safety, and suffer from the lack of meaningful activities inside the facility.

Some prison inmates resort to taking care of pets within the facility like cats, mice, or birds. They channel their love to these pets and appreciate the companionship. As a result, they have reduced loneliness and have a lower risk of developing mental illness. 

5. University Students

The Fair Housing Act mandates that college students should be allowed to have emotional support animals in their university dorms. This is because animals can help lower depression and loneliness.

University students are away from their families, are under high pressure to do well in school, and worry about their piling student loans. That’s why ESAs are allowed inside the dorms to help students cope emotionally and mentally. 

6. Everyone Else, Because ESAs Are Beneficial to All

To simply have a pet at home fills the gap of being alone and brings joy to anyone. That’s why everyone can benefit from taking care of ESAs. It doesn’t matter if you call it an emotional support animal or your best friend. All that matters is that your pet, ESA, fur child, or best friend makes you happy. 

How to Qualify for an Emotional Support Animal

If you need an emotional support animal to fly on airplanes, or your landlord does not allow pets in the house or apartment, you need proper documentation for your ESA. All you need is to consult a licensed mental health professional or psychiatrist to certify that the animal you have is an essential part of your treatment. Therapists now include dogs or any pets in CBT sessions to lower stress levels and improve overall general happiness.

Final Words

Pets provide emotional support and companionship. They can be your best friend and a part of the family. Now that ESAs are regarded as an essential part of therapy, there’s more reason to spend time with your fur babies.

Are you qualified to apply for an ESA? Talk to a counselor at Kentucky Counseling Center (KCC) now. Schedule an appointment with a KCC therapist to find out how you can obtain an emotional support animal.