In the U.S., it’s estimated that around 44% of households own a dog, and 35% own a cat. That’s a lot of pets running around the country, and it only covers the big two. When you factor in all the rabbits, hamsters, budgies, guinea pigs, snakes, lizards, and other assorted creatures, it makes for millions upon millions of different species of pet being looked after across the States. Emotional support animals (or ESAs for short) have also made a big impression across the country in recent years, though it’s for totally different reasons. Despite appearing like a regular pet, ESAs are in fact a vital part of the treatment plan for many common mental health disorders that afflict thousands of people across the country. Those who are new to the idea may be wondering what kind of training an ESA needs to perform its function, and whether regular pets can become ESAs.
The answer is quite simple. Emotional support animals require no training whatsoever to perform their tasks, which consist of providing support to their owner through constant companionship and their general presence about the household. The treatment of mental health disorders is a very nuanced subject; there is no one-size-fits-all recovery plan. Each case is different, and depending on the type of disorder, may require a multi-pronged approach. Emotional support animals are part of that approach, and can ease symptoms of a variety of conditions including depression, anxiety, PTSD, and bipolar disorder.
Emotional support animals can be any species of animal, with specific types suiting different disorders. For example, a dog is generally a good choice for a person with depression, because it forces them to go outside now and again to keep the dog fit and active, while the added responsibility of looking after the dog day after day helps motivate and foster a sense of purpose. Even though it’s small, it can help to reframe a person’s mindset. For those with anxiety, a cat can be a good option, as stroking a cat can be incredibly calming and relaxing. Also, cats don’t need consistent looking after, and can comfort just by their presence alone. However, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to emotional support animals. The bottom line is, if they provide comfort to you, then they’re legitimate ESAs.
Many patients who discuss the potential for registering as an ESA owner with their doctor wonder if their existing pets can act as ESAs. The answer is yes, with very few caveats. In some cases, it wouldn’t make sense for the patient to search out a completely new animal when they have a pet at home who’s basically acting as an ESA without the title. If this is the case, it’s very easy to transition the existing pet to ESA status; in fact, the procedure is the same whether the animal is already owned by the patient, or if they’re getting a new one. Recognition for emotional support animals comes in the form an ESA letter, which can be assigned by your mental health professional. Alternatively, you can even apply online for an ESA letter. By answering a few simple questions about your disorder, you can apply for emotional support animal status for your pet in no time at all.
As stated, emotional support animals require no specific training for their new role. In this way, they’re quite different to therapy or service dogs, who require intensive training to perform their requisite tasks. It’s important to remember that the ESA letter is not a qualification for the animal itself, but a recognition of the owner’s mental health condition, and the subsequent need for an ESA to ease that condition. Therefore, all responsibilities regarding the ESA lie solely with the owner. If your pet is well-behaved and obeys your commands, this can make the transition very simple. If the patient has never owned an animal before, it can potentially cause some problems.
An ESA letter brings with it special privileges that aren’t afforded to regular animals or pets. Namely, it includes permission for emotional support animals to board aircrafts with their owners (the Air Carrier Access Act), and also to be allowed into rented accommodation, even where pets are usually forbidden (the Fair Housing Act). This is required by law; all the owner has to present is an in-date ESA letter, verified by a mental health professional. In cases like these, it can certainly help if the ESA is a long-time pet, as they’ll be more comfortable with the owner, and in turn, the owner is in a better position to keep them from being a nuisance on flights or in a rented home.
All in all, it doesn’t actually matter if you opt for a new animal or an existing pet – both are perfectly legitimate options. The only crucial factor is that you’re getting the help you need to deal with your condition.