The natural health benefits of an emotional support animal

We’ve all seen them… vacationers making their way down the airport terminal to catch their flight, with a small dog in tow or under their arm. Maybe you’ve even sat next to one of these pet owners on the plane, with their dog seated comfortably beside them or on their lap.

Most of us think, curiously and perhaps even enviously, “how in the world were they able to bring their dog with them on the plane?”

It’s easier than you might think…

Welcome to the era of the Emotional Support Animal, or ESA. An ESA is a domesticated pet who provides comfort and emotional support to a person.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, ESAs as “trained or untrained animals that do work, perform tasks, provide assistance, and/or provide therapeutic emotional support for individuals with disabilities.”

So unlike service animals, ESAs do not have specific training or tasks they accomplish for that person. By just like service animals, ESAs can serve important functions for their owners: they provide distraction from physical or emotional pain, they help calm worries and frazzled nerves and they can even serve as companions for a sense of connection and support.

Strong evidence that pets are good medicine

From a natural health perspective, there is strong evidence to suggest various benefits to a person’s mental and physical health from interacting with a pet, and there is even a name for it — Zooeyia. The term is a combination of the Greek root words for animal (zoion) and health (Hygeia). It was coined in 2011 (Hodgson and Darling). This study found a significant reduction in stress among cardiac patients when compared to non-pet owning cardiac patients with similar conditions. Further, it found that pet owners reported non-judgmental social support which may act as a buffer against pathogenic responses to stress.

The Center for Disease Control lists multiple positive health effects of pet ownership including decreased blood pressure, decreased cholesterol, fewer feelings of loneliness and increased opportunities for exercise and outdoor activities. And with the onset of COVID-19 and the rise of social distancing recommendations, it is likely that many people are experiencing an increase in feelings of loneliness.

In fact, former Surgeon General of the United States (and currently a Distinguished Policy Scholar in Health Policy and Management at Johns Hopkins University) Vivek Murthy has dedicated his work toward ending loneliness. He stated in a 2017 interview that “The greatest gift of animals is they remind us we can love and be loved” and encouraged interaction between people and animals.

Mental health: Changing attitudes, coping strategies and the role of pets

Over the past few decades, our national attitudes toward mental health have been changing — in a very positive way. The younger generations feel more comfortable and confident in talking openly about aspects of their mental health which were once considered taboo. It’s much more common nowadays to have conversations with your friends about experiences with depression or anxiety, conversations that have facilitated the sharing of resources and adaptive coping strategies between peers. With this increased discourse has come a recognition of the many different facets of life which can play a role — helpfully or adversely — in our overall mental health and emotional fitness. And thus, with the proliferation of various animal-assisted mental health therapies, the concept of the ESA was born. So while many folks may not become pet owners with the expressed intent of relieving distress or bolstering their mental health, we’re now better able to recognize just how crucial a role pets often play in guarding the well-being of their owners.

Pets have long been recognized for the health benefits they give to their owners. But more recently, federal law helped establish this linkage by determining that landlords (Federal Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988) and airlines (Air Carrier Access Act of 1986) cannot discriminate against individuals who have a documented ESA. What this means is that ESAs are allowed to travel with their owners on most airlines (without incurring additional fees) as well as able to reside in housing which might otherwise prohibit pets (also without charging a pet deposit or fee).

But just how do get your pet documented as an ESA? Well, any licensed medical professional — including primary care physicians, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers — can validate your pet as an ESA, and all you really need from a legal standpoint is a letter from them stating you have a mental condition that your ESA helps alleviate.

Many of these medical and mental health professionals will now provide this service remotely, saving you an in-office visit (and bill) and improving timely access to this service. The benefits of pursuing the online evaluation option is that you don’t have to wait weeks for an in-person office visit, you won’t incur additional office co-pays or insurance fees and you get a letter that meets all the legal requirements and is written by medical professionals experienced in conducting these evaluations — something not all general medical practitioners are accustomed to doing.

So, if you’re someone who struggles with an emotional issue or mental disorder and your pet helps provide you with relief, wouldn’t it be great to be able to take them with you everywhere you go?

Jerry Walker, Ph.D., Dale Wilson, Ph.D.

By Jerry Walker, Ph.D., Dale Wilson, Ph.D.

Authors, Jerry V. Walker III, Ph.D., and J Dale Wilson, Ph.D. are both licensed Psychologists and Veterans of the United States Air Force. They have teamed up to create a new service, esaprovider.com, which streamlines the ESA process in order to help as many people as possible maintain the company of their pet.