In 2020, nearly 20 percent of adults in the US are living with one or more mental illnesses according to the National Institute of Mental Health. With so many Americans experiencing the effects of mental illness, many are searching for ways to level out their anxiety and stress. Among some of the most popular treatment options are taking prescription medication, attending talk therapy, or even getting an emotional support animal (ESA).
Are ESA’s Effective?
One 2018 study conducted by The Assistance Dog Center (TARSQ) and CertaPet found that 100 percent of the 298 participants aged 14 to 81 reported improved quality of life due to having an ESA. This study focused solely on emotional support dogs, but nearly any domestic animal can become an ESA. From bearded dragons to birds, cats, or goats, animals of all kinds can provide psychological support, love, and joy to their owners.
A more recent study from students of the University of York and the University of London in the UK revealed that the vast majority of the study’s 5,323 participants with companion animals reported that their pet(s) provided a substantial source of emotional stability throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
An Array of Psychological Benefits
ESAs provide several psychological and physical benefits to their owners, including those listed below!
- Studies have shown that petting an animal can significantly reduce stress levels, since petting an animal reduces the level of the stress hormone cortisol in the body.
- Studies have shown that looking into an animal’s eyes, a dog’s in this instance, can produce dopamine in the brain, a neurotransmitter associated with happiness and pleasure.
- A major symptom of many mental disorders is feeling alone or isolated. ESAs can provide unconditional love and be a calming presence that may help to break up the cycle of isolation.
- ESAs can level out their owner’s mood. Studies show that interacting with an animal reduces anxiety, regulates physiological symptoms of psychological disorders, and improves the owner’s mood, overall.
Distinguishing Between Service, Therapy, and Emotional Support Animals
It is easy to confuse service animals, certified therapy animals, and emotional support animals, but the three are very different. Service animals, like seeing-eye dogs, are specifically trained to help their owner with everyday tasks that they may have difficulty completing due to a disability. Service animals are legally allowed to be in all public spaces with their handler and can live with said handler regardless of their landlord’s pet policy, due to the Fair Housing Act (FHA).
Certified therapy animals can provide emotional therapy to many people, like in a hospital or nursing home setting, but are not allowed everywhere in public, are not specially trained to help those with disabilities, and are not protected under the FHA.
ESAs are not service animals. Instead of helping someone overcome the difficulties of a disability, they provide emotional support to those with psychological disabilities. They are not required to undergo any special training and are not allowed in all public spaces, but they can live with their owner regardless of pet policy, as stated in the FHA.