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Considering An Emotional Support Animal for Anxiety? Here’s What You Need To Know

Emotional Support Animals can help people with anxiety cope with feelings of loneliness and worry, and help them improve their outlook on life.
Expert reviewed by:  
Written by:
Susana Bradford
Published on:  
September 7, 2022
Updated on:  
September 7, 2022

At a glance:

  • What Is An Emotional Support Animal for Anxiety?
    These animals provide comfort and relief from common anxiety symptoms such as panic attacks, anxiety attacks, and generalized anxiety. 
  • Do I Qualify for An Emotional Support Animal?
    If you are uncertain whether you can get an ESA, schedule a consultation with a licensed mental health professional to discuss your mental health and qualifications. 
  • What Can An Emotional Support Animal Do for Anxiety?
    ESAs can help ease anxiety, including negative thoughts or ruminations, and relief from more severe anxiety or panic attacks. 
  • How Do I Get An Emotional Support Animal for Anxiety?
    Once a licensed mental health professional deems qualified, you can get any animal that provides anxiety relief and support – there are no special requirements regarding the breed or type of animal.

Anxiety is at an all-time high. With 19% of American adults dealing with mental illness, 56% of which go untreated, it is no surprise that the mental health industry is looking for ways to share the importance of mental wellness.

People with anxiety likely experience frequent negative thought patterns, some of which prevent them from going about their day-to-day life. That’s where the many benefits of emotional support animals (ESAs) for anxiety come into the picture – experts point to the significant mental health benefits of having an animal companion around, ranging from decreased levels of loneliness, stress, and worry to an improved outlook on life 

What's more, the benefits of an animal on mental health conditions are so significant that they are protected by federal law under the Americans with Disabilities Act. If you’re considering getting an ESA to help with your mental health, here’s everything you needed to know about getting an Emotional Support Animal for anxiety. 

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What Is An Emotional Support Animal?

Emotional support animals (ESA) help people with psychological disorders or conditions manage their mental health. ESAs are effective when it comes to helping their owner manage the symptoms of a psychological illness. Even just the presence of an ESA provides comfort and support for a person with anxiety, depression, ADHD, and other mental health issues. 

They don’t require special training either! Instead, their companionship helps relieve some of the stress and challenges that get in the way of good mental health. 

It’s important to know that these animals are not the same as service animals, which are highly trained dogs to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities. It’s also important to know that an ESA can be any type of animal, not just a dog!

What Can An Emotional Support Animal Do For Anxiety?

The presence of an emotional support animal is likely to reduce anxiety symptoms, simply by being around its owner! Here are some of the ways these animals can help manage anxiety. 

Help reduce anxiety and stress

Feelings of anxiety and stress are hallmark features of anxiety disorders. Though often experienced psychologically, these feelings may also manifest physically through trembling, sweating, or rapid breathing. However, numerous studies show that the presence of an animal offers countless mental health benefits, such as fewer feelings of stress or anxiety. 

One study showed that when people performed a “stress test” (think: doing math or submerging their hands in ice water), with their animals present, they exhibited lower heart rates, less of a reaction to the test, and faster recovery. This study is just one of many showing the positive effect of an ESA on the body’s natural anxiety and stress responses. 

Promote higher feelings of life satisfaction and psychological well-being

Improved satisfaction and well-being accompany the calming effect an ESA is likely to have on a person with anxiety . The connection is simple – as the animal helps soothe and distract you from the anxious thought spirals, the feelings of intense worry or fear decrease. Having  an ESA is a great way to encourage people with anxiety to soothe themselves in the short and long term. One study even found that playing with an animal is enough to increase the serotonin and/or dopamine levels in the brain, which promotes an improvement in mood and increased calm.

Redirects focus from anxious thoughts

A common anxiety symptom is spirals of negative thoughts. For some, these may lead to more severe reactions like panic attacks. Others may be unable to focus or feel out of control. The presence of an ESA is likely to redirect the owner’s attention back to the present moment. Focusing on something other than the anxiety is easier said than done, but one of the most effective ways to combat this anxiety symptom. Whether your ESA is a dog, cat, rabbit, or something else, try petting it, taking it out for a walk, or interacting with your animal to get your mind off the anxiety. 

Decrease feelings of loneliness and social isolation

Studies show that the presence of an ESA likely lowers the owner’s feelings of social isolation, a feeling that is a common symptom of anxiety. One study even found that 54% of animal owners felt that their animal helps them to connect with other people, and 76% of people (including both animal owners and non-owners) feel that interactions with animals often reduce feelings of social isolation. These statistics show that an ESA may be crucial in helping people with anxiety make meaningful connections and decrease feelings of loneliness. 

Encourage regular physical activity

Regular exercise is an effective coping tool for many anxiety disorders. Moving your body decreases stress hormones, provides a positive distraction from negative emotions like worry or fear, and may even lower your physiological reactivity to stress). If you’re dealing with anxiety, getting an emotional support dog may help you get the full benefits of regular physical activity since you become responsible for your furry friend’s daily walks. Of course, you can still get the exercise benefits from other ESAs as well – horses are one of these animals that are proven to reduce anxiety levels in their riders.

Do I Qualify for An Emotional Support Animal?

The odds are that you qualify for an emotional support animal if you struggle with a diagnosed anxiety disorder or are undiagnosed but experience frequent symptoms. To give you an idea of how an ESA can support people in numerous situations, these are three cases where an ESA may help.

Case 1: A college student experiencing panic attacks and intense worrying

Going to college is hard for most students – a 2018 study about anxiety in college reported that 63% of college students felt overwhelming stress and/or anxiety at some point in their school career. What’s more, students’ psychological distress (think: anxiety and depression) dramatically increases over their first semester and remains high throughout the second semester. An ESA can provide college students with comfort, lack of judgment, unconditional love, and companionship that may be missing during the first few school years. 

Though ESA policies differ by school, many will permit an emotional support dog or animal if you provide sufficient documentation, including a letter from a licensed mental health professional stating your ESA qualification and the veterinarian and vaccination records for the animal.

Case 2: A child with persisting separation anxiety

Anxiety is not just for adults, it’s very prevalent in children too. Though many kids feel anxious when left at daycare, this is a normal part of development for 1 to 4-year-olds. However, separation anxiety becomes an issue when the parent is unable to leave the child in or after the elementary school years. For children with persisting tantrums or letting their separation anxiety interfere with normal activities, an ESA may help calm the child while the parent is away. One study found that the presence of a familiar animal is enough to provide children with a sense of security and calm.

Case 3: An adult with high-functioning anxiety and depression

Maybe you’ve heard the term “high-functioning” in the mental health field. At its core, this term means that a person can go about their day-to-day without their mental health challenge getting in the way of most tasks. For a person with high-functioning anxiety and depression, or post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety may appear as internal worrying and rumination, an inability to focus, and feelings of social isolation. Even though the person may appear calm, confident, and lacks clear signs of mental health challenges, they are still qualified for an ESA! 

Remember that the purpose of an ESA is to provide comfort and reduce the symptoms of anxiety like an anxiety attack, even if it is a high-functioning one. So if having an ESA helps the person manage their anxious thoughts, reduce the probability of an anxiety attack, and feel less lonely, they may qualify for an ESA. 

What is the Best Emotional Support Animal for Anxiety?

Selecting an emotional support animal to help with anxiety can be hard since there are so many to choose from! However, you can be assured that there is no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to choosing your ESA. Any animal or breed is acceptable if it provides the comfort and companionship that’s valuable to you. To help your search, these are three of the best emotional support animals to help with anxiety. 

Cats

Can cats be ESAs? Yes - these feline companions provide great mental health benefits for people with anxiety. They provide playful and loving companionship that is linked to higher levels of ease, well-being, and confidence. Cats require less maintenance than dogs, making them perfect for people with busy schedules or those who live in smaller spaces. If you’re concerned about a cat lacking the friendliness of a dog, then keep an eye out for these notoriously friendly cat breeds – Maine Coons, Siamese, Ragdoll, Persian, and Scottish Fold cats all make loving companions that can help soothe anxiety. 

Dogs

When it comes to ESAs, emotional support dogs likely came to mind. And it’s not surprising why! These four-legged friends are loyally devoted to their owners and are excellent at supplying companionship and love. Unlike cats, dogs come with more demands including regular walks and meals, but don’t let this deter you! The structure of a dog’s schedule has been linked to a better feeling of grounding and regularity in people with anxiety, not to mention the mental benefits of taking the dog for a walk. If you’re considering an emotional support dog, some of the best breeds include Golden Retrievers, Labradoodles, Chihuahuas, and Huskies. 

Rabbits

Gentle and low-maintenance, rabbits are an excellent animal for people with anxiety. These small animals bond with their owners, providing companionship that is helpful for soothing anxiety symptoms. Though rabbits spend most of their day sleeping (their active hours are early mornings and evenings), they need regular interaction and exercise outside of their cage to stay happy. Since the rabbit forms a bond and needs with its owner, this furry friend is a great ESA for soothing a variety of mental health conditions. 

How Do I Get An Emotional Support Animal for Anxiety?

No matter where you are in your mental health journey, Pettable makes getting Emotional Support Animals accessible for everyone. Start by filling out a 3-minute assessment about your ESA needs. Then, meet with a licensed mental health professional for a free consultation to discuss your mental health and how your animal may help you better manage anxiety disorder. Once approved, you will receive a legitimate ESA letter, legally recognized by official institutions, that certifies your need for an anxiety ESA. 

Then comes the best part – choosing your animal! Unlike service animals, an Emotional Support Animal may be any animal or breed, so long as it provides you with the emotional and mental support you need, and helps you in reducing stress! Because of this flexibility, you do not need to go to any specific breeder to find one. 

How Do I Make My Pet An Emotional Support Animal for Anxiety?

Remember, an emotional support animal can be any type of species or breed that gives you psychological support. Start the process of making your pet an emotional support animal by talking with your therapist and seeking professional medical advice. If they think you qualify for an emotional support animal, then they will provide you with an ESA qualification letter. This letter is a crucial step in making your pet an ESA! 

At this point, your letter is the only documentation you need to make your pet an ESA. Though some websites claim that your emotional support animal needs to be registered online, neither the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development nor the Fair Housing Act requires you to register your ESA.  

Why does a person make their pet an ESA? If you’re denied housing because of your pet or are charged an expensive pet fee, point to the Fair Housing Act. This law protects animals that provide emotional support and comfort for people with mental disabilities, such as anxiety. With your ESA letter, you may look for housing without the stress of jumping through hoops to keep your animal with you.  

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Frequently Asked Questions

If you want to know more about Emotional Support Animals for anxiety, these are the most commonly-asked questions. 

Can I get a Psychiatric Service Dog Instead?

It depends on whether you want the dog to perform highly specialized tasks or just to provide emotional comfort. If you want a dog that does specific tasks (think: give you your prescriptions, recognize when a panic attack is coming on), then psychiatric service dogs are a better option for you. But if you just want comfort from your animal, then psychiatric service dogs won't be necessary. 

Can any animal be an emotional support animal?

Yes! As long as the animal is emotionally grounding and soothing for you, then you may get it registered as an ESA. No special training or breed restrictions are required for ESAs, making the requirements more flexible than the rigorous ones needed for service animals.

What is the most comforting animal?

There is no correct answer when it comes to choosing an ESA. Think about what mental health concern you’re facing and what type of animal can help the best with your emotional wellness. Dogs, cats, rabbits, horses, and guinea pigs are some of the most popular ESAs for people with anxiety. 

Can someone with anxiety get an emotional support animal?

Yes. According to the ADA, anxiety is one of the mental health disorders that may qualify for an emotional support animal. An ESA for anxiety provides a range of soothing benefits including lower stress levels and an improved sense of well-being. 

How do I train my emotional support dog for anxiety?

Fortunately, you don’t need to do any training for an emotional support dog for anxiety! ESAs don’t require any special training, unlike service animals. Instead, their presence and companionship are all that you need to get the anxiety-soothing benefits of having an ESA.

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Meet the author:
Susana Bradford

Susana is an avid animal lover and has been around animals her entire life, and has volunteered at several different animal shelters in Southern California. She has a loving family at home that consists of her husband, son, two dogs, and one cat. She enjoys trying new Italian recipes, playing piano, making pottery, and outdoor hiking with her family and dogs in her spare time.