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Do Emotional Support Animals Really Help Improve Mental Health?


Recently, plenty of bizarre emotional support animals have been shown on the news, like Daniel, the emotional support duck. Although Daniel is definitely cute, stories like these have caused an influx in the popularity of pets who support the emotional wellbeing of their owners. 

However, the question of whether or not they actually improve mental health is on the mind of legislators.

Emotional Support Animal vs. Service Animal 

Both emotional support animals (ESA) and service animals aren’t pets. Whereas service animals are given the respect they deserve, as they perform tasks for the blind, epileptics, and the mentally disabled, support animals are often grouped in with other pets. However, ESA's can be a much-needed lifeline for patients who experience depression, anxiety, and BPD.

Emotional Support Animals and Legislation

ESA's had had legal precedence since 1988 when the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development included “assistant animals” (ESAs and service animals) under the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA).

That means that those seeking housing can, with proper emotional support animal registration documents, can’t be turned away with a “no pet” policy.

Landlords are also not allowed to charge for additional costs, like pet deposits. Unfortunately, many landlords or apartment complexes will still turn people with ESA certification away and will even disclose on office documentation that they weren’t considered due to their “pet.” What's worse, the FHAA makes breed classification restrictions pretty vague, confusing ESA owners.

To complicate matters further, ESAs and service animals are subjected to different policies aboard airplanes. This is why most emotional support animals are pigs, ducks, and birds. All of these animals are small enough to fit on an airplane and are unlikely to cause harm to others.

How Emotional Support Animals Aid Mental Health

Although research on whether or not ESAs benefit a person's mental health is mostly anecdotal, research on the positive effects of having an animal companion is well documented. If you currently have a pet, you’ve likely experienced the following emotional changes.

Pets Chemically Affect Our Moods

Interacting with animals we trust will make our bodies produce dopamine and serotonin, otherwise known as the “happy chemical.” Both hormones offset anxiety and depression, leading hospitals to adopt support animals to keep patients company.

Animal therapy is so effective that a HABRI study found that 97% of patients had improved their mental health.

Pets Produce a Calming Effect

Any repetitive motion calms humans, but petting an animal seems to effectively relax children and adults with ADHD. While pets can provide a welcome distraction, they also help to burn off excess energy and elicit a feeling of responsibility from those on the spectrum.

Those who are on the ADHD or autism spectrum can stoke pets to overcome sensory issues and social anxiety.

Pets Keep Us Active

A healthy body leads to a healthy mind, so it’s vital that we get an average of 30-minutes of physical activity a day. All pets, even docile ones, make us more active because they enjoy playing or taking walks.

Seniors who own pets tend to visit the doctor more often than those who don’t, likely because they’re more aware of their bodies than those who are sedentary.

Pets Allow Us to Socialize

Socialization benefits our mental health greatly, and pets, especially dogs, give us more opportunities to talk to people. Pets are also a great conversation topic for people who are often shy in a public situation, leading to that person building more confidence. You can also dress up your dog so that people have a special attraction towards your pet. 

You also build an emotional attachment to your pet, making them an important part of your social life.

Pets Make Us Feel Needed

The act of being responsible for another living being, even something as small as a mouse or bird, increases our sense of purpose. You’re your pet’s whole world. They rely on you for unconditional love, support, and necessities like food and water. Having something to care for reduces depression and loneliness and also distracts us from mental health difficulties.

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