Roughly one in four Americans is living with a mental illness or emotional condition: that’s nearly 50 million people. Out of them, one fifth have a condition so serious that it affects their ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. These conditions can include anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as less well-known illnesses and disorders.
In the past, treatment for mental illnesses was more or less limited to therapy and anti-depressants, but now more and more people are turning to alternative or supplementary solutions. Enter the emotional support animal, an increasingly treatment popular option for all kinds of conditions. But what are emotional support animals, and what kinds of animals make good ones? We answer this question, and more, below!
What is an ESA?
Before we get into the best kinds of emotional support animals, let’s get a clear definition of what they actually are. To put it simply, an emotional support animal, known as an ESA for short, is an animal that helps people with emotional or mental conditions by offering love, affection, and a calming influence. Unlike service animals like guide dogs, these animals require no special training: just a special bond with their owner, and the ability to behave well in public.
Emotional support animals are protected by two specific laws, which allow their owners to bring them into certain spaces where pets are not always allowed. The Fair Housing Act protects the rights of people with disabilities in rented accommodation (including college on-campus housing) to keep an ESA in their home, and the Air Carriers Access Act (ACAA) allows them to travel free of charge in the cabin of commercial aircraft. ESA owners need to show special documentation to do this, which we’ll go over in the next section.
How Do I Get an ESA?
The only way to get an emotional support animal certification is to get a prescription for one from a licensed mental health professional. The prescription comes in the form of an ESA letter, which is also what you will need to show as proof of your need for an emotional support animal, for example to a landlord or when flying.
An ESA letter is an official document that is valid for one year, and which states that you have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder or emotional condition and that the animal in question is needed for your ongoing treatment or to help you manage in your daily life. Once again, only a licensed mental health professional who is treating you can issue this letter, so beware of scam websites that offer to sell you one without any kind of consultation.
There is no way to “register” or “certify” an emotional support animal, so don’t trust any service that offers to do so!
Dogs, Cats, Rabbits...Can Be an ESA, as Long as It Can Behave!
Firstly, some airlines restrict the types of animal that they will accept onboard as ESAs, with a few even limiting it to just cats and dogs. Secondly, unlike service dogs, there is no legislation to guarantee that ESAs can enter businesses or public places. While it’s not hard to find businesses that allow dogs, meaning your emotional support dog can come with you, it is harder to find places that welcome pigs, horses or hedgehogs!
Do note: a lot of LMHP will not prescribed ESA letters for any other than dogs and cats due the safety of others, health concerns, and zoning issues.
Whatever kind of animal you choose, you need to make sure that it is able to behave well in public, even in crowds. That means no barking or otherwise making a loud noise, no jumping up at people, no showing aggression (hissing, growling, or scratching), and above all, no going to the toilet indoors!
As ESAs become more widespread, the legislation on them is being constantly updated. Badly behaved emotional support animals are not good ambassadors for assistance animals, and in the long run make things harder for everyone. Plus, have an ESA that is constantly misbehaving in public is likely to be stressful for the owner, which somewhat defeats the point of having one.
What Qualities to Look for in an ESA
There isn’t one kind of animal that makes the best ESA overall, as the right one differs from person to person. When choosing your perfect emotional support animal, here are some questions to consider:
- Do you or any of your family members and close friends have any kind of animal allergy? There’s no point getting an emotional support cat, only to find that your partner can’t be in the same room as it!
- Are you or any of your close friends and family afraid of large animals?
- How much space do you have for an ESA? Do you have your own garden for it to exercise in? Where would it go to the bathroom?
- Do you have to travel frequently? Will the ESA be able to travel safely and comfortably with you? If you need to drive often, does it fit in your car?
- Do you have experience looking after a certain type of animal? You don’t want to choose something that will cause you more stress to care for.
Where to Find Your Perfect ESA
Some people who already have pets upgrade them into ESAs once they are prescribed one, which means less time spent getting to know each other and training, and more time enjoying life.
Other people opt to raise their ESA from a young age to ensure that it gets the proper training from day one. Bear in mind that training a puppy or kitten can be hard work though, and it may take a while until it’s able to go out in public with you.
Another great option if you’re looking for a new ESA is to visit a local animal or humane shelter. There are lots of wonderful animals there looking for a loving home, and when adopting an adult animal you may not need to do as much training—it all depends on the individual animal.
Emotional support animals are just as varied as the people that they help! One person’s ideal ESA would be less than helpful to someone else. If you’re looking for the best ESA for you, make sure you think carefully about your needs, your lifestyle, and what you’re looking to get from the ESA. Don’t worry, though: the right ESA for you is definitely out there!