Emotional support animals (ESAs) are becoming more common, but what are they and how do you get one? An emotional support animal is not a service dog. This distinction is important because there are no regulations on which animals can offer emotional support or how much training is required to qualify as an ESA. Also, ESAs don’t have the same access rights as service dogs, so ESAs cannot go everywhere you go.
An ESA is an animal that provides therapeutic benefits to the owner. ESAs are not protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act but do have protections under Fair Housing Act (FHA). For example, your landlord can’t force you to remove your ESA or charge extra fees. However, you can be asked to leave a place of business or denied access to locations where pets aren’t allowed.
What Is ESA Licensing, and Is It Necessary?
Emotional support animals don’t need to provide any specific type of assistance to their owners, which means these animals do not require special training or licensing. Some organizations offer training programs to improve your pet’s access to public and private spaces, but the training doesn’t guarantee access. The Canine Good Citizen (CGC) program through the American Kennel Club (AKC) is a recognized training program. While dogs that have CGC certification aren’t allowed in all areas where service dogs might be allowed, CGC trained dogs are ready to interact with the public in a nonthreatening manner.
There are no licensing requirements for an animal to be an ESA. However, the owner does need a letter from a licensed mental health provider stating that the owner has a mental disability and that the emotional support animal helps to alleviate the symptoms. The letter should contain the professional’s license number, the date and place where the license was issued, and the letter should be signed and dated on the mental health professional’s letterhead.
PTSD and Emotional Support Animals
Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a complex disorder that can have many symptoms. Some PTSD symptoms may be reduced in severity with the right companion animal. In most instances, a dog is the chosen animal to be an ESA because of the physical, mental and emotional benefits of having a dog and the ability to take it safely out in public. While cats, caged pets and other animals can provide emotional support, these pets may not be as effective for those struggling with avoidance behaviors, troubling mood symptoms or reactivity. Since dogs are one of the most commonly selected animals for PTSD treatment, we’ll focus on canines to explain how these companion animals can help.
Why are dogs helpful for people with PTSD? Dogs are highly aware of body language and can often tell when their human family isn’t feeling well physically or emotionally. It’s common for dogs to cuddle or offer other gestures of support when their human companions are feeling stressed or overwhelmed. Dogs might recommend a play break, which is a positive way for their owners to do something different and have fun, instead of feeling depressed. Dogs also need regular exercise which makes their owners go outside, become more active and feel less lonely. Dogs improve their owners’ physical and mental health.
People who have PTSD might want control over their interactions with strangers. A dog often creates extra space in public places while offering a low stress way to interact. An emotional support dog is not a substitute for clinical care for PTSD, but an emotional support dog for PTSD can be a welcome addition to the tools needed to manage everyday stress. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs notes that more studies to determine the efficacy of ESAs are needed but finds that dogs provide emotional benefits to everyone, including those with PTSD.
How Do You Judge if It’s a Good Fit for You?
It’s important to talk about the implications with your mental health provider, family and anyone else who lives with you before getting an ESA. An ESA provides beneficial health effects and reduces stress levels only if its presence isn’t a point of contention or results in more stress. It’s critical to be honest about where you are in your treatment and your ability to care for an animal.
If you want a puppy and plan to train it, remember that the first six months require a significant time commitment. Puppies need potty breaks as often as 30 minutes. If you don’t have the time to house train a puppy that doesn’t mean you can’t get an ESA, but it indicates you should consider adopting older dogs who are house trained.
Dogs require several walks every day. They need exercise time and frequent outdoor trips to go to the bathroom. If you don’t have access to a fenced yard, you’ll spend a lot of time outside. Are you at a point in your PTSD treatment where this is a reasonable expectation and time commitment?
Are you financially ready to own a dog? Dogs have food, grooming, veterinary and other miscellaneous expenses. Additionally, larger dogs eat more food and cost more to be groomed, so size is one factor in the overall cost of having a dog. Discuss the options and what benefit you hope to see from an ESA with your mental healthcare provider before moving forward.
What Are the First Steps for Seeking an Emotional Support Animal for PTSD?
Getting a letter from a licensed mental health professional is the first step toward obtaining an emotional support animal for PTSD. You do not need to disclose the diagnosis in the letter. Discussing the pros and cons of caring for an ESA is as vital as the physical and mental health benefits of having one.
If you think you might benefit from an ESA as part of your PTSD treatment, contact Restore at (877) 594-3566. Our compassionate therapists and counselors can help you develop a treatment plan and work toward getting a dog to have the therapeutic benefits of an ESA.