According to the National Service Animal Registry, support animals are growing in popularity, with over 200,000 officially registered in recent years. This number has skyrocketed in the last decade – and while traditionally, these extraordinary animals were designated companions for those with physical challenges, most of the increase has represented emotional support animals or ESAs. These animals are helpful for those who live with anxiety, bipolar disorder, or depression.

The positive influence of animals is well-documented. They can elevate mood, dispel sadness, and even help to regulate blood pressure. The simple act of petting an animal can increase feelings of calm and serenity. However, animals are not suitable for everyone. This article will discuss the benefits and downsides of owning an emotional support animal.

What Are Emotional Support Animals?

Support and service animals are not the same things. Animals (primarily dogs) that have received formal training and are capable of completing particular tasks can be designated as service pets. Emotional support animals, however, don’t require any specialized training.

According to the ADA, emotional support animals provide companionship and can help their owner cope with loneliness, depression, anxiety, and some phobias.

Unlike service animals, a medical doctor or therapist’s recommendation is unnecessary to obtain an emotional support animal. However, it is vital to understand that emotional support animals don’t enjoy the same public access as service animals. The only places legally required to allow support animals are aircraft and housing units.

Suppose you have been diagnosed with a mental health condition and an animal will provide tangible assistance with your well-being. In that case, you can ask your therapist about getting a psychiatric service dog. While a service dog isn’t considered a pet, it can help those with mental illness to improve and enhance their quality of life. Psychiatric service dogs are allowed access in most public places as they are certified and trained.

Is an Emotional Support Pet Right for You?

Before adopting an emotional support animal, consider the fact that even the best-behaved and trained animals still require a lot of hard work, care, and time. If you already own a dog or cat and wish to have them certified as an emotional support animal, that may be an option. If you have mental health challenges and have never owned a pet, it is essential to consider if the responsibility of owning a pet is something you want to take on.

The most significant benefit to having an emotional support animal is its positive influence on mental health. Pets can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, alleviate loneliness, and motivate owners to pursue a more active, healthy lifestyle. Because pets tend to boost happiness and minimize feelings of despair, owning a pet may significantly affect how you feel and view your life.

There are some potential drawbacks to consider. These include the expense involved in caring for an animal, the time required to train them, and the necessary home preparation. However, putting in the required effort to care for and train a pet can provide a sense of purpose and meaning.

If you or a loved one are concerned about your mental well-being and you believe an animal companion would help, an emotional support animal could be an excellent solution. Talk to your therapist to ensure you’re ready for the responsibility of a pet, as well as any other treatment options that could help.

Denise Schonwald is a nationally certified mental health counselor, coach, and dedicated dog owner.