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Companionship Beyond Words: Exploring Emotional Support Animals and Support Animals

In a world where stress and anxiety seem to be constant companions, it's often our furry, feathered, or scaled friends that provide the solace and support we need. Exploring the profound therapeutic bond between humans and animals not only underscores the invaluable role they play in our lives but also beckons us to consider harnessing their healing presence in formal therapeutic settings.  It is therefore understandable that we contemplate the use of animals through Emotional Support Animals (ESA) or Service Animals. While both of these are considered assistance animals, it is important to know the difference between an ESA and a Service Animal. An ESA (also known as a therapy animal) is an animal that helps primarily with mental health disorders by providing comfort, companionship, unconditional love, and happiness (Ferrell & Crowley 2021). Service animals are most frequently dogs trained to perform tasks to help with one’s disability, medical condition, or ailment. One of the main differences between the two is that Service Animals require intensive, structured training while Emotional Support Animals can but are not required to have formalized training.

            In order to obtain an ESA or Service Animal, very different processes must be completed which depend on which type of assistance animal you pursue. For an ESA, a signed letter from a qualified mental health professional is required.  This includes factual information about the ESA and how it benefits the individual emotionally and from a mental health standpoint (Ferrell & Crowley 2021). The process of obtaining a Service Animal is much longer and more difficult which is more costly. The first step to getting a Service Animal is obtaining paperwork from a health care professional saying the individual is being treated for a disability and requires a service animal. Then, an organization that trains Service Animals must be found who can either provide you with a trained animal, or who can train an animal which you provide. It is possible to train a Service Animal yourself with the right testing having been completed and the animal being able to adequately prove the intended assistance recommended by the individual’s physician. This is a long and costly process but can we well worth it if a Service Animal is the right choice for you.

            Emotional Support Animals and service animals do have different laws that apply to them. ESAs can only go into buildings that allow animals to be there, excluding residential buildings. ESAs are protected under the Fair Housing Act (1968) to be allowed in residencies that do not allow pets. Service Animals have more privileges and rights in comparison to ESAs. Service Animals are allowed in any building and facility regardless of their policies about animals.  Furthermore, staff at these locations are limited on the types of questions they may ask about the Service Animal. Service Animals are allowed on planes with special access that other animals do not have. They are also covered by the Americans with Disability Act of 1990 as well as Air Carriers Access Act of 2003 (Ferrell & Crowley 2021).

            In either case, the companionship we gather from a relationship with animals has lasting health effects. They can promote physical health by encouraging their owners to engage in regular exercise and outdoor activities, thus improving cardiovascular health and overall well-being. They also provide a sense of routine and purpose, as their daily care requires structure and responsibility, which can be particularly beneficial for those struggling with conditions such as PTSD or bipolar disorder.  Additionally, support animals can act as a social bridge, facilitating connections with others and reducing social anxiety in their owners. Their non-judgmental presence can create a sense of safety and security, enabling individuals to navigate challenging situations with greater ease.  Additionally, they can act as a social bridge, facilitating connections with others and reducing social anxiety in their owners. Their non-judgmental presence can create a sense of safety and security, enabling individuals to navigate challenging situations with greater ease.  Overall, the companionship and support provided by these animals have been shown to significantly enhance the quality of life for many individuals, offering both emotional and practical benefits in managing various mental health conditions.

            Overall, ESAs and Services Animals can provide help and improve quality of life for those suffering with mental health challenges, disabilities, medical complications, and ailments. Both have additional benefits that a pet does not inherently have.  It is important to look at the major differences and ability in order to decide which type of assistance animal will best fit one’s needs.  Should you or someone you know be interested in either of these resources, contact us today for assistance!

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American Veterinary Medical Association. (n.d.). Service, emotional support, and therapy animals. American Veterinary Medical Association.
Ferrell, J., & Crowley, S. L. (2021). Emotional support animals: A framework for clinical decision-making. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 52(6), 560–568.
Humane Society of the United States. (n.d.). Fair Housing Act and Assistance Animals. Humane Society of the United States.
International Association of Assistance Dog Partners. (n.d.). IAADP.

NAMI Helpline. (n.d.). Where can I learn more about emotional support animals (ESA)? NAMI.
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