The Surprising Benefits of Emotional Support Animals

By Naomi Weinshenker: For Complete Post, Click Here…

Research shows that support animals can relieve some symptoms of mental illness.

When the pandemic first started, as a clinical psychiatrist I saw a steady increase in requests to verify the need for emotional support animals (ESA) among my patients. Included was Miriam, a lawyer in her 40s who experiences panic attacks, and needed a letter so her beloved dog Georgia could live in her rental unit. Meanwhile, Sophia, a young woman with bipolar disorder, needed written verification that her adored cat Matcha could help manage her mood symptoms. As these requests trickled in, I researched the benefits of animal companionship for mental illness — and was surprised by what I found.

Whether it’s the peacock denied a flight from Newark — or ferrets, cats and even dogs maligned and mocked in the press — animals identified as ESAs have often been portrayed as glorified pets that don’t deserve exemptions from policies restricting their presence in college dormitories or rental housing. Yet I’ve been amazed by how much these animals have become an important part of the mental health treatment plan for many of my patients.

Is That Animal Really An ESA?

How can you tell the difference between an ESA and a companion, therapy, or service animal? There is no legal definition of a companion animal, which is basically synonymous with a pet, but it’s safe to say they simply reside with their human owners in (ideally) a mutually loving relationship. Likewise, therapy animals don’t have a legally recognized status, but can be registered by non-profit organizations to help facilitate a goal-directed professional intervention, such as a therapeutic equine riding program.

By contrast, a service animal is recognized under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and is defined as an animal trained to perform specific tasks to assist individuals with physical impairments such as blindness or deafness — as well as emotional conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder. Here’s where it can get confusing: An emotional support animal doesn’t receive any special training, but nevertheless helps to relieve symptoms of a person’s mental or physical disability through everyday interactions, and is recognized under the Fair Housing Act of 1988 (FHA).

“An emotional support animal is not considered a pet legally, but rather an accommodation for a mental health or health condition,” says Janet Hoy-Gerlach, a social worker and researcher at the University of Toledo. A person seeking an ESA as a housing accommodation must provide documentation verifying their need to landlords, college disability offices or condominium boards. This is where I (or another health care professional) will step in to document the disability and state how the animal will provide assistance.

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