What is an Emotional Support Animal?

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For many people, their pet, or pets, are their closest companions. Over a quarter of adults in the UK plump for dogs when it comes to taking in an animal friend, but cats, house-birds, and rabbits are all popular too. 

Pet ownership is becoming increasingly popular. It is expected that dog ownership in India will grow by 150% in the next two years. In the US, the adoption of dogs and other rescue animals has soared over the last year, and the UK is following a similar trend. 

You may have read on the BBC website how more than 3 million dogs have been bought in the UK during the pandemic. Many of these dogs were taken home by new owners to alleviate loneliness, and this is interesting to note. 

Where typically, dogs are taken in by families as pets, many more are now being used for emotional support, and it isn’t just dogs that are performing this role. 

What are emotional support animals?

Emotional support animals, or ESAs, are an extension of the belief that animals can play a role in alleviating mental health symptoms in humans.

It has been known for a long time that animals and pets can help anyone that has mental health issues. Pets can help bring calm, and improved moods. They can also help with some areas of physical health.

An emotional support animal is a companion in the same way that a pet is, except that it will help an individual with some area of their mental or physical health. 

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What can ESAs do for their human companions?

Mental health is a very big concern now. Every year, up to 25% of people in the UK endure some kind of mental health problem. ESAs can help to relieve a number of these symptoms. However, it is important to note that ESAs are not legally recognised in the UK, unlike assistance/guide dogs, and there is no official registry for emotional support dogs in the UK. 

ESAs can help with symptoms of trauma, reduce stress and anxiety, help with depression, and give a person a sense of purpose. While the animal will give love and support to the owner, they also need some back. This can help the individual to regain that sense of purpose which they may have lost, and develop new routines. 

They can help with physical wellness too. Because animals can help to lower feelings of stress or anxiety, this then lowers blood pressure and helps with respiration.

They can help individuals with travel too, although this can result in some strange occurrences. 

The strangest emotional support animals

One of the roles for some ESAs is to be a travelling companion. For many dog owners, understanding how to plan a dog-friendly holiday is the biggest concern when going on vacation. For some people though, having an ESA means that they can finally travel, let alone worry about a holiday. 

Many people are frightened to fly or have issues with being far from home. Having an ESA can help in this respect. The problem is that some ESAs can be pretty unusual.

The Independent reported that people in America and other countries were trying to take their emotional support animals on planes when they travelled.

Generally, this might not present too much of an obstacle if the ESA meets the airline’s requirements. However, many people have tried to take some very strange undocumented emotional support animals onto planes, including peacocks and pigs.

 This has led to some concern that a small minority are abusing the purpose of emotional support animals for their own benefit and convenience. 

Why have emotional support animals become so popular?

Currently, there are around 200,000 emotional support animals in the states.

The Emotional Support Animal Registry, based in the US, reports that there are thousands of registered ESAs across Europe, and further afield. The reason that ESAs have become so popular initially is the same as why many people have pets. Many animals provide unconditional love and affection. Certain types of animals understand their human companions in surprising ways.

However, another reason that ESAs have become more popular possibly has to do with modern life and the pandemic.

Mental health conditions are far more prevalent and understood now than they were in the past. Modern life can leave people feeling alienated and suffering from loneliness. Covid has exacerbated these feelings in many people, and this has led to a higher need for emotional support. 

What are the most typical emotional support animals?

Out of all the domesticated animals that are common to have as pets, dogs are the most popular ESA. Cats are very common too, but any domesticated animal could play the part. It can depend on the person and what works for them.

Rats, mice, rabbits, and birds, are all used as emotional support animals. This may depend on what you class as ‘domesticated’.  

When you consider the passenger who was barred from her flight, along with her peacock, you may question what domesticated animals mean.

Why do dogs make the best ESAs?

Dogs are chosen to be ESAs most often for many reasons. Dogs were the first animal that humans brought into the home, and the only ones domesticated by our hunter/gatherer ancestors.

They make great travel companions, and they also understand when their owner is sad. There is no doubt that your dog understands your emotions and moods.

They can read human faces and understand all the many strange emotions that we can show through them. They understand and recognise commands. They have some remarkable abilities such as knowing when their owner is returning without being able to read a clock. 

Dogs can sense illnesses such as seizures before they happen, and recognise cancer in people. They also give all their love and support to the family that looks after them.

In short, a guide to emotional support dogs would show they already perform all the roles needed by an ESA and more. They can also make great protectors and defenders. 

How do you get an emotional support animal?

ESAs don’t need any special training, and you don’t need to go to a special place to buy one. Any pet can become your emotional support animal.

This means either buying a pet if you don’t have one, adopting or rescuing one, or using your existing pet as an ESA. 

In the US, to obtain the proper benefits of having an ESA you will need a prescription. This should come from a psychiatrist or therapist. Sometimes a medical doctor’s letter is enough, but not always.

The prescription for an ESA is really a letter that states that you have a mental health condition. You may need this so that your landlord lets you have your pet live with you, or so you can board an airplane. 

Summary

Emotional support animals may be a new thing as far as the title goes, but pets have been looking after humans for centuries. 

Dogs, in particular, are keenly aware of their human companions and seem to know just when to come along and offer affection and love.

Looking around the world today it would appear that ESAs are needed more than ever. Fortunately, thousands of people are benefiting from having their own emotional support animal right now.