What is an ESA?
They're on the news, they're next to you on your flight, they're even in college dorm rooms around the country.
So, what exactly are these mysterious ESAs that have grown exponentially in popularity in past years?
Emotional support animals - or ESAs are big news is the United States right now. An estimated quarter of a million Americans flew with one last year, and property owners have reported a dramatic uptick in renters keeping them.
But what is an ESA? And what do they actually do?
We've all heard about the emotional support peacock fiasco at Newark airport. That is precisely the example that ESA owners don't want you think of when understanding the world of emotional support animals.
This is a no-nonsense, no funny business, absolutely NO emotional support squirrel/peacock/tiger zone to help you learn more about emotional support animals, or ESAs.
What is an Emotional Support Animal, or ESA?
An emotional support animal or an ESA is an animal that has been deemed by a mental health professional to offer therapeutic emotional support to a patient. This allows the ESA to accompany their owner where a regular pet may not - for example in the cabin of a flight, or in rental accommodation. Most commonly, emotional support animals are cats and dogs, but some individuals keep other types of animals as ESAs.
It’s important to note that an emotional support animal is not a service animal - these two types of assistance animals have different roles.
Differences Between Service Animal and Emotional Support Animals
A service animal is not the same thing as an emotional support animal, period. Anyone that argues on this point either does not know what they’re talking about - or is trying to feed you false information. Service animals are specifically trained in tasks to assist their owners - the classic example is a seeing-eye dog for vision-impaired individuals. These animals are highly trained in helping their owners navigate obstacles safely and assisting them with everyday task.
Emotional support animals, on the other hand, offer generalized emotional support to their owners without specific training.
What does an ESA do?
Emotional support animals are prescribed or endorsed by mental health professionals for a number of reasons. Often, individuals who require ESAs suffer from mental health issues such as anxiety and depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.
While ESAs are not specifically trained in completing tasks for their owners, they can benefit a patient immensely by being a supportive and constant presence in their lives. The companionship and focus that an emotional support animal provides to a person who is struggling with their mental health can be lifesaving, and ultimately increase the quality of life for a patient. There are a number of reasons why ESAs are so beneficial to patients.
The Huge Benefits of ESAs
Don’t be fooled into thinking that having a pet means you get to pet something cute, therefore life improves.
There are serious scientific benefits for those in need of having an ESA. Interacting with pets has been shown to increase the brain's production of dopamine - one of the feel-good chemicals that is depleted during bouts of depression. Dopamine production is also linked to our feeling of being loved and connected with others, so having an ESA can assist those who suffer from depression and loneliness in their day-to-day lives.
Pets can also assist with anxiety, by lending a grounding presence for their owners to focus on during stressful times. Anxiety can be reduced in triggering situations like flying, going out in public or doing daily errands by the calming company of an ESA.
Those who suffer from PTSD often experience intense and involuntary bursts of emotion. The benefit of an emotional support animal in this instance is the stable and neutral presence that they provide can act as the perfect mood stabilizer. In fact, the everyday presence of an ESA can reduce the frequency of mood changes, due to the powerful effect that animals have on stabilizing everyday emotions. This is down to their ability to provide attention and unconditional love on demand at any time of the day, which even the closest loved ones of a patient may not be able to do.
ESAs: An Essential Part of a Treatment Plan
Legitimate users of emotional support animals will be quick to tell you that an ESA is not a stand-alone solution for mental health issues, but instead an important piece of the puzzle in a therapeutic treatment plan. Developing a treatment plan with a psychiatrist or psychologist is important to treat mental health issues, and they will be able to determine where an ESA could beneficial in assisting with recovery.
What types of animals can be ESAs?
Technically, any animals can be considered emotional support animals, subject to local laws. However, the most common and practical is usually a dog or cat. If you have an unusual ESA expect to run into issues when flying or renting (make sure to give your emotional support animal letter to landlord
Laws That Support ESA Owners
While mental health professionals can approve many types of animals as ESAs, the laws concerning where ESAs are allowed in public spaces are strict. There are two laws that support emotional support animal owners, the Aircraft Carrier Access Act (ACA) and the Fair Housing Act (FHA).
While these laws cover owners of emotional support animal's rights, specific policies must be followed up with individual companies - particularly airlines and colleges.
For example, the FHA allows ESAs within rooms at colleges, but many individual colleges prohibit them from being allowed in public areas of the school.
Except for a few who are making a bad name for emotional support animals, ESAs are a legitimate and science-based therapeutic aid for many who struggle with their mental health.
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