Although it’s common to see service dogs in vests working alongside the people they help, you may not be as familiar with emotional support animals (ESAs), which include any animal that can provide comfort and relief to a person diagnosed with a mental health condition. And while many pet owners could attest their pets add value to their life, recent research indeed confirms registered ESAs improve the lives of people with a mental health issue.
A peer-reviewed scientific study reported in Popular Science revealed that one year after adopting a stray pet (a cat or dog), participants experienced a significant reduction in loneliness, anxiety and depression. Janet Hoy-Gerlach, PhD, LISW-S, a professor of social work at the University of Toledo and lead investigator of the study, elaborated:
“This study shows there is a place for emotional support animals in terms of them being partners in our health and well-being. The best part of the program is it’s two-fold. The program benefits people’s health, and it gets shelter animals into good, loving homes.”
Registering a pet as an ESA is relatively straightforward and usually requires a certifying letter from a clinician that states the animal helps manage a patient’s well-being. Still, seniors should consider if they truly fit the criteria to have their pet undergo registration and if their relationship with their pet is therapeutic.
Emotional service animal basics
Ariel Lounette Landrum, LMFT, ATR, clinical director at Guidance Teletherapy, said no laws list the types of pets who can serve as emotional support animals. However, people should consider state and city ordinances regulating issues such as animal housing (acreage requirements for horses or laws concerning the size of snakes a person can keep in a home).
It’s also important to note that:
- ESAs are not necessarily allowed in all public spaces.
- The Fair Housing Act grants people with ESAs some rights.
- A recent revision to the Air Carrier Access Act limits the type of animal that can serve or support on a plane.
Although any animal can become an ESA, Landrum explained most are dogs and cats.
“Dogs and cats are easily domesticated and rely on their owners,” Landrum added. “They also have limbic systems, a set of structures in the brain which work with emotions and memory. This means an owner can see and feel their pet’s emotions and vice versa. Often it’s the emotional connection and bond that is the reason the relationship with the pet shifts into comfort and support around the owner’s mental health diagnosis.”
How to register an emotional service animal
Landrum said the ESA registration process is dependent on local city and state laws. Some states allow clinicians to evaluate and assess a client’s potential need in one session; others may require an “ongoing treatment relationship” between the patient and clinician before and after the ESA certification process.
Although ESA registration requirements and obtaining an ESA certification letter differ from state to state, there are two common steps to the process.
The first step involves a patient receiving a mental health diagnosis. If the clinician determines this health diagnosis impedes a patient’s mental, emotional, physical and social life function, they may qualify for an ESA.
Next, a clinician will evaluate if the pet and client have a “nexus” (a causal link) between them and the mental health diagnosis. Common questions clinicians consider are:
- Does the pet respond to the owner’s symptoms from their diagnosis?
- Does having an association with the pet (being comforted by their existence, touching them or talking to them) affect the client’s symptoms from their diagnosis?
- Does that response or association alleviate some or all of those symptoms?
While not required, clinicians often also consider a third step: Can the patient take care of their pet or easily access pet caregiving assistance?
“Some individuals have severe symptoms from their mental health diagnosis, which may cause them to forget to provide for the pet’s needs,” Landrum said. “Even if they already own the pet, a clinician may not want to put themselves at a liability risk by certifying the pet as an ESA only for the pet to be adversely harmed.”
Once a pet is certified as an ESA, a clinician must renew their certifying letter yearly.
Landrum noted that while many seniors experience isolation and desire connection and stability, pets can provide unconditional love without judgment and force routine, which has been shown to improve a senior’s mental health.
Although pets can positively impact a senior’s life, not every senior can care for their pet independently. In many cases, a hired pet caregiver could help a senior maintain their relationship with their ESA.
Landrum added that if a senior experiences extensive physical and mental deterioration, the “nexus” between them and their ESA may deteriorate. If this occurs, the patient’s mental health diagnosis may no longer support the need for an ESA.
Seniors (and their caregivers) should consider these aspects when applying for and maintaining their ESA registration.