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Emotional Support Animals: Who and How They Help

soldier-870399_1280Most people have heard of guide dogs or service animals. These are animals who have been specifically trained to provide assistance to a person, helping them complete tasks and living their lives. From guiding the blind to pulling a wheelchair, these animals go beyond providing care and support for people with disabilities and actually help them live their lives.

There is another kind of support animal that is less common, however, and that is the emotional support animal. These animals, frequently cats or dogs, provide support or assistance to those with mental or physical disabilities. Unlike service animals, they do not help them complete tasks or perform work for the owner. Rather, these animals provide emotional support and help alleviate some aspect of the person’s physical or mental disability.

What Benefits Does an Emotional Support Animal Provide?

An ESA is an animal who provides relief to some aspect of a person’s disability. This means that the animal helps alleviate or prevent a clear aspect of that handler’s disability. Here are some examples of disabilities and how an ESA provides support:

  • Panic Attacks: ESAs are trained to recognize when their owner is suffering from a panic attack. They can provide help by getting someone else or by searching for a trusted family member or friend.
  • Anxiety: When a handler is suffering from anxiety from being in a crowded or strange place, the animal can help look for exits and direct the person out of that situation quickly.
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: ESAs know when their owner is having a compulsive episode and can help redirect them to productive behaviors.
  • Autism: There are many cases where people with autism have been helped by an ESA. These animals provide comfort and an emotional baseline for their owners, recognizing when they are having an emotional episode and helping them recover or help them prevent it in the first place.

What Rights Do Emotional Support Animals and Their Owners Have?

The key requirement of needing and using an ESA is that a medical professional has to diagnose a disability and sign off on the fact that an animal is an emotional support animal. This is why they are not just limited to cats and dogs. The determination is always made individually based on the particulars of that case and that owner. There have been cases of miniature horses and guinea pigs qualifying as an ESA.

With that qualification as an ESA, the animal and their owner are afforded certain rights. Specifically, they are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. While they are not given as many rights as guide dogs or service dogs, they are afforded certain exceptions in the legal system. The major case where this applies is with housing regulations. A legally designated ESA bypasses a no-pet clause in most housing situations. Since they do not qualify as pets, a landlord must allow the ESA in a situation where a normal pet wouldn’t be allowed. While there are exceptions, the animal is considered a part of what a handler needs to live a normal life.

In addition to residential rules, ESAs can be considered exceptions to breed-based rules in cities or neighborhoods. Fundamentally, these animals do not count as pets, thus they are not subject to the same restrictions that govern pets.

Though ESAs are afforded these privileges, their protected status does not allow them into places that guide dogs or service animals can go such as motels, restaurants, taxis, or privately owned businesses.

What Do I Do to Find Out More?

If you feel that you or someone you know would benefit from an emotional support animal, contact your primary care physician or mental health professional today. Starting with an evaluation, you can get your current or future animal classified as an ESA.