Emotional Support Animals, Service Animals & Animal-Assisted Therapy

“The whole glorious history of animals with people is about joy and connection. It’s about loving this creature and letting this creature love you.” This quote by Jon Katz illustrates the strong bond that has always existed between humans and animals.

Therefore, it’s no surprise that seventy percent of American households have a pet. Did you know that animals can also provide mental health support, whether as emotional support animals, service animals, or even through animal-assisted therapy? Even though each of these roles differs from the other, all offer substantial benefits that can meet a variety of needs.

Emotional Support Animals

Emotional support animals or ESAs are companions that often alleviate at least one aspect of a disability such as anxiety or depression. Most emotional support animals are dogs, but they can also be cats, miniature horses, or other pets. While ESAs do not require specialized training, psychologists, therapists, and doctors can write letters in order for individuals to live and travel with their pets. For example, emotional support animals are covered under the Federal Fair Housing Act so that people who need them are able to have ESAs live with them in environments they might not otherwise be able to and without having to pay additional pet rent expenses.

Service Animals

Service animals differ from emotional support animals because they perform specific tasks such as guiding an individual with visual impairment along a street, pressing an elevator button or automatic door lever, reminding their owner to take necessary medication, alerting others if the individual has a seizure or other medical event, and even preventing self-harm. These animals do require specialized training and are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Service animals are working animals, which separate them from other household pets.

Animal-Assisted Therapy

Any therapeutic intervention that incorporates animals like dogs, cats, horses, and birds into a treatment plan is considered animal-assisted therapy. These animal-based interventions are utilized as a way to enhance the benefits offered through traditional therapy modalities. In order for animal-assisted therapy to be categorized as such, it needs to have clear goals for change with objectives that are measurable in order to identify progress. Animal-assisted therapy has been used in treatment plans for stress, anxiety, depression, autism, ADHD, addiction, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, and other medical conditions.


While emotional support animals, service animals, and animals used in animal-assisted therapy hold different purposes, they are all rooted in the bond that naturally occurs between animals and people. This animal bond aids in developing increased self-worth and trust, emotional stability and regulation, communication tools, and socialization skills. Not only can these animal supports lessen anxiety and depression, help treat phobias, improve physical health and increase physical activity, and aid in navigating trauma, but they can also help combat feelings of loneliness, boost social support, provide a sense of safety and calm, and produce feelings of reciprocal love and care.

Owning a pet or simply engaging with animals is proven to have positive effects on both mental and physical health. People can learn to manage their emotions in times of crisis and distress while also strengthening emotional connectivity. Whether you care for a pet at home or ride a horse in equestrian therapy, you are sure to receive a multitude of benefits ranging from personal growth and comfort to the way you engage with the natural and social world around you.

How to Feel Your Feelings