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Emotional Support Animal For Veterans: A Complete Guide

An emotional support animal for veterans could assist in coping with a mental health disability such as PTSD or acute stress disorder. Requiring no formal training, ESAs assist their owners simply with their comforting presence. Speak with a licensed mental health professional who can determine if you qualify and write you an ESA letter.

Susana Bradford
April 3, 2024
April 21, 2023
8 minute read
Updated By
Matt Fleming
April 3, 2024
Expert Reviewed By:
April 21, 2023
August 18, 2021
8 minute read
April 3, 2024
Emotional Support Animals are effective at helping veterans cope with PTSD, insomnia, anxiety, and other common mental health conditions.

The Bottom Line

  • 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 will receive within 24 hours if approved.

Millions of military veterans live with mental health challenges brought upon by their experiences in their service careers, and many of them rely on the love and companionship of a beloved pet. However, if you’re a veteran, you can easily elevate your standard pet to an emotional support animal (ESA), enabling you to keep your pet by your side wherever you live. An ESA can help ease the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) brought on by distressing situations or events experienced during military service or provide much-needed comfort in times of depression or other mental health challenges. Explore everything you need to know about how to get an emotional support animal for American veterans of military service.

Emotional Support Dogs for Veterans

Emotional support dogs play a pivotal role in the lives of veterans, offering unique benefits for their mental well-being. These loyal companions provide comfort during difficult moments, reduce stress and anxiety, and help veterans overcome feelings of isolation. Through their unconditional love, companionship, and intuitive nature, emotional support dogs empower veterans to regain confidence, improve social interactions, and find solace on their journey to healing and recovery.

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. Though often experienced psychologically, these feelings may also manifest in physical bodily reactions, including headaches, fatigue, rapid heartbeat, 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’re a veteran living with an undiagnosed mental health disorder, or your current therapies are falling short for your diagnosed disability, an emotional support animal (ESA) might provide the relief you need. To qualify for an ESA, you must be diagnosed by a licensed mental health professional (LMHP), who can attest to your need for an assistance animal and issue you an official ESA letter. Qualifying conditions include PTSD, anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder.

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. However, 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 feel supported (U.S. News). As the veteran learns how to cope with PTSD and re-engage 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?

While dogs might come to mind when you think of assistance animals, many more animals can qualify as an ESA. Depending on your personal affinity for specific breeds or species, your ability to accommodate, and other factors, you can choose from numerous types of animals to find your perfect ESA, whether it’s a canine companion, feline friend, or scaly sidekick. Some types of animals that make great ESAs for military veterans include:

  • Cats
  • Dogs
  • Lizards
  • Birds
  • Rabbits
  • Domestic rodents, such as hamsters and guinea pigs
  • Snakes
  • Mini horses
  • Mini pigs

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

If you’re a U.S. military service veteran, getting an emotional support animal is easier than you might expect. If you already have a relationship with an LMHP or other medical professional, they can help you through the process. If you don’t, Pettable can take you through the steps and provide all the resources you need to bring an ESA into your life. Our trusted professionals promise an easy and swift experience with a money-back satisfaction guarantee.

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

If you’re a veteran who already has a beloved domesticated animal as a pet, Pettable can help you elevate it to an official ESA. As long as you have a qualified condition, our network of mental health professionals makes the process easy — just follow these steps: 

1. Have a Diagnosed Mental Health Disability

Whether you have been previously diagnosed or strongly suspect that you have a mental health disorder, you will qualify for an ESA. If you have yet to receive an official diagnosis, the next step of the Pettable process will remedy that.

2. Confirm Your Diagnosis With a Licensed Mental Health Professional

The next step is to get an official diagnosis from a licensed mental health professional (LMHP) who is currently certified in your state of residence. That requirement is only essential in certain states, but we recommend following that guideline either way. We will link you with the right LMHP to fit your needs and schedule an online assessment, where you will be evaluated and diagnosed with your mental health disorder.

3. Have the Clinician Write You an ESA Letter
Finally, your mental health professional will write your official ESA letter. This document must be issued on their official letterhead with their current credentials and license number. The letter will contain their diagnosis (without revealing your disorder) and essentially “prescribe” you an ESA. If you have a pet that will take on this role, the letter will specify its species and acknowledge it as your assistance animal. Once they apply their official signature, you will have your legitimate ESA letter, the only document you need to keep your assistance animal in your home.

Frequently Asked Questions

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

Does PTSD qualify for an emotional support animal?

Yes, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a qualifying condition for an ESA. Many military veterans live with this disorder and find that an emotional support animal is the perfect treatment.

Do I need to register or certify my emotional support animal?

No, you never need to certify or register your ESA with any entity, governmental or private. Any business offering either certification or registration with a database is selling you an unnecessary product. All you need is an official ESA letter.

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. If you wish to train a dog to be a psychiatric service animal, you can do so by using our online PSD training program.

Can any animal be an emotional support animal?

Yes! As long as the animal is emotionally grounding and soothing for you it can be an emotional support animal. 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. 

04/03/2024 Update: Article was reviewed for accuracy by Jennifer Bronsnick MSW, LCSW.

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.

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