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What is an Emotional Support Animal for Veterans? Here's What You Need to Know

Emotional Support Animals are effective at helping veterans cope with PTSD, insomnia, anxiety, and other common mental health conditions.
Expert reviewed by:  
Written by:
Susana Bradford
Published on:  
September 7, 2022
Updated on:  
September 7, 2022

Family members and friends of veterans, not to mention service members themselves, are no strangers to the risk of severe mental health concerns. Active duty members who experience combat violence, survivors of military sexual trauma, and service members who sustain brain injuries are the most susceptible to developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some point in their life. The symptoms of PTSD can be extreme, ranging from insomnia and nightmares to anger, depression, and detachment. However, the presence of animals suggests a powerful way to soothe these symptoms. 

Numerous studies point to the positive effects a highly-trained service dog may have on a veteran. But experts believe that even the presence of an animal – specially trained or not – can reduce a veteran's cortisol levels, improve their sleep, and provide non-judgemental companionship as they readjust to civilian life.

What's more, the benefits of an animal on mental health conditions, in general, are so significant that they are protected by federal law under the Fair Housing Act. This means that a person cannot be denied housing or given a pricey pet fee if they have documentation of their ESA qualification. 

If you're considering getting an ESA to help with your mental health, here's everything you need to know about getting an Emotional Support Animal for veterans. 

At a glance:

  • What Is An Emotional Support Animal for Veterans? These animals provide comfort and relief from common mental health conditions experienced by veterans, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, panic attacks, insomnia, and depression. 
  • 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 Veterans? ESAs can help ease symptoms of PTSD and other mental health conditions common in veterans. 
  • How Do I Get An Emotional Support Animal for Veterans? Once a licensed mental health professional deems you qualified, you can get any animal that provides comfort and alleviation from your symptoms.
  • Take The Next Steps: Get An Emotional Support Animal Letter. Pettable connects you with licensed mental health professionals who will approve you for an ESA letter, which you receive within 24 hours if approved.

What Is An Emotional Support Animal?

Emotional support animals (ESA) help people with psychological disorders or conditions manage their mental health. ESAs are especially effective in helping their owner manage the symptoms of a psychological illness, especially those commonly experienced by veterans. Not convinced? Try holding or stroking an animal – this simple action may lower your heart, reduce feelings of loneliness, promote hormones in the brain that calm and relax the body, and increase your engagement with the surroundings (Counseling Today).

One of the most appealing traits of an ESA is that they don't require special training. Instead, their companionship helps relieve some of the stress and challenges that get in the way of good mental health. This sets them apart from psychiatric service animals. Service animals undergo rigorous training to perform tasks that their human may be unable to do themselves.

What Can An Emotional Support Animal Do For Veterans?

The presence of an emotional support animal is enough to reduce PTSD and other symptoms of mental disorders in veterans. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Here is a closer look at how ESAs can help veterans manage their mental health. 

Decrease feelings of loneliness and social isolation

One of the biggest challenges veterans may face when they return home is reconnecting with others. Some people may feel numb, while others may withdraw or completely avoid friends and family. However, an animal may be easier for a veteran to connect with because of their soothing and non-judgemental presence (U.S. News). Scientists also find that the connection between humans and animals is chemical as well, evidenced by the release of the bonding hormone oxytocin in interactions with animals. Promoting the release of this hormone is key to helping veterans feel less isolated through their ESA's companionship (Penn Medicine). 

Help reduce anxiety and stress

Anxiety and post-combat stress are hallmark mental health concerns for veterans. Approximately Though often experienced psychologically, these feelings may also manifest in physical bodily reactions, including headaches, fatigue, loss of appetite, or insomnia (Military One Source). 

However, numerous studies show that the presence of an animal is likely to reduce a veteran's high stress and anxiety. Though the company of an ESA is not an end-all solution for veterans with anxiety, studies show that an animal can lower cortisol levels, better sleep, and improve symptoms across a range of variables (NPR).

Help improve sleep

Approximately 90% of veterans with PTSD have symptoms of insomnia and other sleep disorders. Not only does a lack of sleep make anyone feel less than ideal, but missing too much sleep eventually takes a toll on your mental health. When healing from PTSD or another mental health disorder, sleep is crucial (Sleep Foundation). 

The Veterans Affairs Medical Centers system addresses PTSD-related nightmares and sleep disorders through animal therapy. Simply put, the presence of a service animal or emotional support animal diminishes the intensity and frequency of nightmares experienced by veterans. 

Encourage regular physical activity

Regular exercise is an effective coping tool for many mental health 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. 

However, veterans with symptoms of PTSD may avoid leaving their homes. If you're dealing with post-combat PTSD, getting an emotional support dog is a great way to encourage you to leave the house and get gentle exercise, even if only for a short time. Even gentle exercise is enough to lower the levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) in the body. 

Helps with mindfulness and focus on the present moment

Veterans with PTSD, combat stress, or another mental health disorder may frequently experience thought spirals; vivid flashbacks to traumatic moments, negative thinking, or constant worrying and rumination are some of the most common examples. However, emotional support animals are known for effectively improving the mindfulness of veterans (U.S. News). 

Whether this comes from a dog setting a toy in your lap, a cat snuggling up next to you, or something else entirely, these distractions are enough of a distraction to forget the negative thought spiral and be mindful of the present. 

Do I Qualify for An Emotional Support Animal?

If you are a veteran and you've been diagnosed with PTSD or severe anxiety, then you qualify for an emotional support animal. However, if you are undiagnosed but show symptoms of anxiety, depression, PTSD, insomnia, or another mental health disorder, then you may be qualified. It would be best if you met with a licensed mental health expert to determine whether you're qualified for an ESA.

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 veteran who can't sleep

Sleep health is a common symptom in many veterans with PTSD. In a survey of Vietnam War veterans with PTSD, 90% to 100% of surveyed people experienced insomnia at some point after the war (U.S. VA). A recent study suggests that sleep disorders are the primary symptom of PTSD, evidenced by insomnia and nightmare symptoms developing in both civilian and active duty military members. However, the presence of an ESA has proven to help veterans sleep. This is because the bond between humans and animals is linked to higher levels of oxytocin in the brain, a powerful hormone that supports healthy sleep. 

Case 2: A veteran with PTSD flashbacks

PTSD flashbacks to traumatic events are ubiquitous among combat veterans. One poll of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom veterans showed that 11% to 20% of deployed service members experienced PTSD symptoms (U.S. Department of VA). Though the symptoms of PTSD may be severe, studies point to ESAs effectively helping with emotion regulation. Typically, a veteran with PTSD flashbacks is likely to reduce the frequency of feelings of intense anger, anxiety levels, and cortisol in their body because of the support from their animal companion. Though ESAs are not a cure for PTSD in veterans, they may help reduce the symptoms and improve people's mental well-being. 

Case 3: A veteran who is capable of daily tasks but is withdrawn from family and friends

When a veteran is discharged from service, they are likely welcomed by excited family and friends. But some veterans with PTSD are likely to withdraw from social activities and feel detached from people and everyday situations (Veteran.com). Emotional support animals are effective at helping veterans reduce this isolating symptom since they provide non-judgemental love and loyalty that help the veteran to feel supported (U.S. News). As the veteran learns how to cope with PTSD and reengage socially, an ESA provides them with the non-judgemental support and grounding needed to feel calm in various situations. 

What are the Best Emotional Support Animals for Veterans?

Emotional support dogs are often the go-to emotional support animal for veterans. But depending on your living situation and preferences, a dog may not always be the best option. There is no one-size-fits-all answer when choosing your ESA, meaning that any animal or breed is acceptable if it provides you with comfort and companionship. To help your search, these are three of the best emotional support animals to support veterans. 

Cats

These feline companions provide positive mental health benefits for veterans with anxiety, depression, or insomnia. They provide playful and loving companionship that correlates with higher levels of ease, well-being, and confidence (MHA). Cats require less maintenance than dogs, making them perfect for people who live in smaller spaces or are concerned about responsibility. However, some people may worry about the unfriendly cat stereotype. If so, get one of these notoriously friendly cat breeds – Maine Coons, Siamese, Ragdoll, Persian, and Scottish Fold cats all make loving companions that can help soothe a range of mental health conditions (Purina). 

Dogs

When it comes to ESAs for veterans, 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, such as 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 mental illness, not to mention the mental health benefits of taking the dog for a walk. When considering an emotional support dog, some of the best breeds are Golden Retrievers, German Shepards, Pitbulls, and Huskies

Know that service dogs for veterans are individually trained to perform tasks – if you're interested in one of these, talk to your mental health provider about the available service dog programs.

Rabbits

Gentle and low-maintenance rabbits are excellent animals for veterans with PTSD, anxiety, depression, or other disorders. These small animals bond with their owners and provide soothing companionship that is helpful for calming feelings of anxiety, stress, or paranoia. 

Though rabbits spend most of their day sleeping (their active hours are early mornings and evenings), they need regular interaction and exercise outside their cage to stay happy (Humane Society). Since the rabbit forms a bond and needs with its owner, this furry friend is a great ESA for soothing various mental health conditions. 

How Do I Get An Emotional Support Animal for a Veteran?

Before buying an animal, the veteran needs to get qualified for an emotional support animal by a licensed mental health professional. The criteria for an ESA are straightforward; generalized anxiety, depression, insomnia, and other common psychological disorders in veterans are ESA qualified. You then receive an official letter confirming your qualification if the expert approves you for an ESA. 

All that's left to do now is select your emotional support animal! Unlike service animals, an emotional support animal may be any species or breed. The only requirement is that it provides the emotional and mental support you need! Because of this flexibility, you do not need to go to any specific breeder or store for an ESA. 

One of the easiest ways to get qualified for an ESA is with Pettable. This platform connects you with a mental health clinician with the licenses and certifications to provide you with the best experience. Meet with your clinician about your mental health needs. Then, the expert will provide you with an ESA qualification letter within 24 hours of your appointment if you meet the criteria to get an emotional support animal.

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

Remember, an emotional support animal can be any species or breed that gives you psychological support. Start the process of making your pet an emotional support animal by talking with your therapist or mental health professional. If they think you qualify for an emotional support animal, 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 a landlord denies you housing because of your pet or charges 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 get housing without the stress of jumping through hoops to keep your animal with you.  

CTA Take The Next Steps: Get Qualified For An Emotional Support Animal Letter Today!

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are the answers to some of the most commonly-asked questions about getting an emotional support animal for veterans. 

Can I get a Psychiatric Service Dog Instead?

A service dog is likely the better option if the veteran has severe symptoms. These highly-trained service animals can sense when a panic attack is coming on, wake the person up from nightmares, and even give reminders about taking prescriptions. However, an ESA provides comfort, companionship, and other mental health benefits for more moderate symptoms.

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 emotional support animals, making the requirements more flexible than the rigorous ones needed for service animals.

How does a veteran get an emotional support dog?

A veteran starts by speaking with a mental health professional about their interest in an ESA. If the expert thinks they qualify for an ESA, they'll receive a letter confirming their qualification. Then, all the veteran needs to do is choose their dog – any breed can be an emotional support animal!

Will the VA pay for an emotional support animal?

The VA won't pay for an emotional support animal. However, if the veteran has a severe mental health impairment, such as severe combat stress or PTSD symptoms, the VA may reimburse the costs for a psychiatric service dog. 

What is the best dog for PTSD?

The best emotional support dogs for veterans with PTSD are Labradoodles, Cocker Spaniels, Golden Retrievers, Pitbulls, or any dog that provides ease and comfort for the veteran. Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to selecting an ESA – pick the dog or animal that is best for you. 

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.