By Jennifer Krawczyk, M.A., LPCC
Psychotherapist at In Focus Counseling PLLC.

Less Popular emotional support animals cartoon

Image retrieved from http://trepatrilhos4x4.blogspot.com/2020/07/emotional-support-animal-cartoon.html

It is natural that when anyone feels uncomfortable, scared, nervous, or sad, to immediately search for a way to feel a sense of safety or regulation. Some of these methods could be a hug, listening to music, exercising, meditation, etc.. Anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, or other mental health conditions can contribute to an individual’s distress and discomfort. An individual can process these stressful thoughts and feelings through therapy and learn coping skills or techniques to help elevate the cause of pressure, learn coping skills, yet sometimes these efforts do not feel like enough to get through the day. Individual’s require more support and this is where an emotional support animal can help increase engagement or function of an individual in their day-to-day function in life.  An Emotional Support Animal (ESA) is defined, under Colorado law, as an individual’s pet that has been prescribed by an individual’s licensed therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist (any licensed mental health professional.) The animal is part of the treatment plan for this individual and is intended to bring comfort and minimize the negative symptoms of the person’s emotional/ psychological diagnosis (Emotional Pet Support, 2021.) 

Emotional Support Animals: Fact vs. Fiction

There is a lot of information shared about emotional support animals that can serve as helpful to a person needing relief from symptoms. Although some resources are helpful there is unfortunately also a wealth of misleading information. Let’s talk about some of the misinformation that comes to mind when thinking about classifying a pet as an Emotional Support Animal. Many individuals mix up the function of Service Animals and blend them with the function of Emotional Support Animals. Regulations, state law, and the American’s with Disabilities ACT clarify the facet that Emotional Support Animals are allowed to be accepted in public places, apartments, planes, and other modes of transportation. Below, I have outlined one of the most common beliefs that individuals assume when asking for their pet to be certified as an Emotional Support Animal (ESA):

BeliefFact
“All I have to do is fill out an online application and pay the fee. Then, my pet will be an Emotional Support Animal.” “I will be allowed to bring my pet wherever I go.”“My pet will have the same rights as a seeing eye dog”A prescription by a Licensed Mental Health Professional is required for the animal to be classified as an Emotional Support Animal. ESA’s are not given the same rights as ADA support animals. ADA’s are required animals that help people with disabilities function in life that without the animal, their life is hindered. The Licensed Mental Health Professional will have to create a therapeutic bond and determine diagnosis and the need/ benefit for the individual to have an ESA to be able to fulfill prescription.

It is important for an individual that applies for an Emotional Support Animal certification or has a certified animal to understand the state regulations, when they change, and accommodate those changes. State regulations can be updated and changed over time and as a certificated ESA handler it is the owners job to know and understand the changes. 

The Benefits of Emotional Support Animals

The increase of ESA’s in the community has provided many benefits to their owners. Many folks have also abused the system by bringing ESA’s to work, faking their animal as an ESA, allowing ESA’s in places that inhibit service animals from doing their jobs, and injuring other working service animals in public places. Case and point, ESA’s are not service animals they are emotional support animals. They can be very helpful. There are many other trained certified therapy dogs that have skills that specifically support their owners. Some persons with mental health concerns may obtain a therapy animal or assistance animal. These animals have specific training for sight, smell, and other detection to warn their owner of problems to come or have been training to protect their human in certain instances of self harm, panic attacks, ect. You can see that many ESA’s do not meet this criteria. It is important that you have a relationship with a therapist and a specific diagnosis in order to qualify for an emotional support animal letter. 

As stated, Emotional Support Animals have made a huge difference in numerous individual’s lives. The Hour (2019) published an article to discuss the benefit of ESA providing testimonies from individuals with ESA’s and Service Animals noting how the animals have helped their lives. One personal testimony was from a 22-year-old female that struggled with depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder for multiple years stating she was able to get an emotional support cat whose name was Cleo. The female described how she felt after adopting Cleo:

“Cleo seems to have a sixth sense that helps her tune in to my emotions; if I’m angry, sad or afraid, she rubs up against me until I pet her, which helps shift my mind away from what’s bugging me. Just knowing I have something to come home to and take care of helps me get through each day. I’ve received some flak from fellow students who think I only applied for an ESA so I could have a pet on campus, but most visitors light up when they see her in my dorm room.”

(The Hour, 2019)

Emotional Support Animals Bring Anxiety Relief and More

It is natural for any pet owner to feel a strong connection with their pet and feel that they provide mental health benefits throughout daily life. Pets have been shown in research to help reduce stress and the sense of loneliness. An emotional support animal can provide relief to someone that is struggling under the pressure of unbearable sadness or anxiety about their life.  Some would possibly say these animals have been life changing for them. There is a fine balance between a pet and an emotional support animal. As therapists who are in charge of gatekeeping the use of such animals for mental health.  Mental health professionals determine whether or not the presence of an animal will reduce symptoms of the mental health diagnosis, not a person’s general well being. 

Everyone is unique in their own way; how they connect with others, how they cope with stress or sadness, how they recognize a need, and how they heal. In some the stress and sadness can feel like being alone in a crowded room, that no one understands what you are going through. Emotional Support Animals are a therapeutic benefit for the owner and they are a part of the healing journey. These animals have the ability to make a difference in their owner’s lives and allow them to get back to living their lives on their own terms. 

Difference between Emotional Support Animal vs. Certified Therapy Animal vs. Service Animal

Difference Betwen Therapy and Emotional Support Animals

*Graphic retrieved from http://posttraumaticvictory.com/blog/2018/3/23/service-animals-emotional-support-animals-therapy-dogs

Emotional Support AnimalCertified Therapy AnimalService Animal
Establish a therapeutic relationship with therapist and diagnosed No prescription is required to register a pet as a Certified Therapy Animal, however, a test of skill is required to obtain the certificationA service dog helps a person with a disability lead a more independent life
Licensed Mental Health Professional writes prescription letter for support animal and pay the processing fee to classified pet as Emotional Support AnimalTherapy Animals are to help professional that serve different populations such as therapists or social workers to help patients identify goalsA doctor or therapist can recommend a service dog, but a prescription from either is not required to have a service dog. 
Well behaved and under owners control at all times. No professional training required. Training to come on command to interrupt mental health behaviors, such as self harm or panic attacks. Trained to listen to multiple individuals. Undergo intense professional training from birth to be able to sense medical crises or perform tasks requested by a handler. Also, trained to respond to one handler. 
Complete a lengthy application process with service dog company and be accepted and pay the fee. 

References

Emotional Pet Support, 2021. Retrieved from https://www.emotionalpetsupport.com/#about

The Hour, 2019. Retrieved from https://www.thehour.com/news/article/These-stories-show-just-how-important-service-14892878.php

https://adata.org/guide/service-animals-and-emotional-support-animals

https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/animal-health-welfare/service-emotional-support-and-therapy-animals

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