Moosh - emotional intelligence

Emotional support animals have one important quality – emotional intelligence. But what does this mean, and it is a trait that all animals have? Here is everything you need to know about emotional intelligence in animals.

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

According to Psychology Today, emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and manage not only your own emotions, but also the emotions of others. Emotional intelligence comes with three primary skills:

  • The ability to identify and name one’s own emotions
  • The ability to harness those emotions and apply them to tasks such as thinking and problem-solving
  • The ability to manage emotions – both regulating your own emotions and cheering up or calming down other people.

In a nutshell, someone who is emotionally intelligent is highly conscious of their own emotional state – and more than just being aware of their emotions, they know how to manage them. People like this are also tuned in to the emotions others are experiencing. As you might expect, emotionally intelligent people are good friends, parents, and leaders. They’re often good employees, too; there isn’t a true test for emotional intelligence, but some employers make up their own tests and include them in the interview process when hiring employees.

Can Animals Possess Emotional Intelligence?

Yes, animals are emotionally intelligent. Researchers believe a dog’s mind is equivalent to the mind of a human child who is about two years old. So while dogs won’t have a sophisticated range of emotions like adult humans, they do certainly have emotions (probably joy, fear, anger, disgust, and love, but most likely not guilt, pride, or shame). However, those emotions look a little different on them than they do on us – after all, your dog won’t verbally name his own emotions. He’s probably great, however, at tuning in to your emotions and recognizing when you need some cheering up.

Moosh - pet dog
Many animals exhibit signs of emotional intelligence, particularly dogs.

And it’s not just dogs who are emotionally intelligent; it’s all animals. A book titled Beyond Words: How Animals Think and Feel explains “how elephants routinely display empathy; why U.S. Navy underwater tests in the Pacific Northwest should be stopped; and how [the author’s] own pet dogs prove his theories,” says National Geographic.

How can we be so sure about what goes on inside animals’ heads? If you observe animals, you can see how they react to the world. If there’s danger, they act frightened; if there’s not, they relax and play. Keeping that in mind, the author of Beyond Words says it would be “illogical” for us to think animals are not having “a conscious mental experience” of these emotions. In order to do the things they do and to make decisions, animals must be conscious; and therefore, they must have emotions.

Again, emotional intelligence is present in other mammals besides our pets. For instance, humpback whales have been seen to help seals who are being hunted by killer whales. That’s a display of empathy; the whales recognized the seals were in trouble and tried to help. And that’s a sign of high emotional intelligence.

What Are Emotional Support Animals?

According to the AKC, emotional support animals are pets that are prescribed by a licensed mental health professional to help a person with a disabling mental illness. Emotional support animals are distinct from service dogs, which are trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.

The primary difference is that service dogs do specific tasks relating to their handler’s disability, and are trained to perform behaviors they wouldn’t otherwise, whereas emotional support animals are simply there to bring comfort, which is an instinctive and natural thing for them to do. Emotional support animals also have different rights than service dogs. Service dogs can go anywhere in public; ESAs are only allowed in certain places.

Moosh - person with ESA dog
Emotional intelligence in animals, especially dogs, is a key factor in the success of emotional support animals.

Since emotional support animals simply bring comfort, any domesticated animal could be an ESA. However, licensed ESAs must be approved by a mental health professional – and most mental health professionals generally only prescribe dogs or cats unless they can see real proof another animal is helping you. Even if you do have another emotional support animal, such as a rabbit or miniature horse, you wouldn’t be able to take it into as many restaurants or public places as you would a dog. While many domesticated animals are emotionally intelligent, this is why dogs are the most common species of emotional support animal.