Emotional-Support Animals & Psychiatric Service Animals: What You Need to Know


Humans and dogs share about 84% of their DNA; and dogs and humans have had a symbiotic relationship for at least 7,000 years (some even argue this relationship could go as far back as 40,000 years!). Cats are not dissimilar: they were first domesticated about 10,000 years ago and share about 90% of our DNA*.  With such longstanding history of human-animal partnership, and even some genetic similarities, it’s no surprise that many of us look to animals for emotional support.

A Brief History of Emotional Support Animals

Humans have been investigating the role animals play in emotional well-being for a number of years. In 1872, Charles Darwin collaborated with multiple psychiatrists to publish The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.  Almost 100 years later, Boris Levinson, a child psychologist, published one of the first texts directly related to animal-assisted therapy: Pet-Oriented Child Psychotherapy.  The concept of utilizing the human-animal bond for emotional well-being is therefore not a new concept.

The Science Supporting Animal Assisted Interventions

In recent years, when it’s become increasingly important to demonstrate that certain types of treatment are consistently effective, scientists and social scientists have been engaging in research related to emotional support animals.  In her book Made for Each Other, Meg Daley Olmert investigates the science of the human-animal connection.  This research showed that a key player in this bond (and in our emotional well-being) is oxytocin.

Oxytocin is most-widely known for being released when women give birth, as a way of bonding mother and child.  However, research has shown that we release oxytocin in various levels based on the interactions we have in day-to-day life.  For example, we produce about 15-25% more oxytocin than normal when we have a pleasant interaction with a stranger, 25-50% more oxytocin when we engage with a friend or acquaintance, and 50% or more oxytocin when we engage with someone we love like a family member or spouse. It may be no surprise to those of us who think of our pets as family members, but guess what? We also release oxytocin when petting our dogs. (And even better, our dogs release oxytocin too!). Why does this matter? Well, according to an article published on Psych Central, “greater amounts of oxytocin hormone levels appear to be associated with greater relaxation, more willingness to trust others, and general psychological stability. It appears to help us reduce our stress response and reduce general anxiety in people when produced.”  Therefore, having an emotional-support animal, or spending time with an emotional-support animal, potentially provides you with these benefits of oxytocin release.

In addition, research studies have shown that animal-assisted therapy reduced aggression levels in children, increased self-efficacy and decreased anxiety and depression in people with psychiatric disordersdecreased loneliness in elderly residents in a long-term care facility who previously had an association with animals, and even have been shown to increase social skills in children with Autism.

Accessing an Emotional Support Animal

Before you begin seeking out an emotional support animal, or therapy animal, it is important to distinguish the difference between therapy animals and service animals.  Service animals engage in specific tasks to help a person with a disability. For example, a seeing eye dog helps a blind person decide when to cross the street, or a psychiatric service animal may warn a person with Bi-Polar disorder that they are going into a manic episode. Emotional support animals are not trained to perform specific duties for a person, but instead provide therapeutic benefit to its owner through companionship and affection.

There are a few ways you can access the potential benefits of an emotional support animal:

  1. Consider adopting a pet for your home.
  2. Seek out a mental health provider, agency, or group practice that utilizes emotional support animals.

Deciding Whether or Not an Emotional-Support Animal is Right for You

Before deciding to welcome an emotional support animal into your home, there are a number of questions you should consider:

  1. Are you emotionally prepared to care for an animal, and to do-so on a long-term basis?
  2. Are you physically capable of caring for the type of animal you would like to adopt? (Your animal should match your lifestyle. The good news, all kinds of animals have been shown to have a positive impact on mental health. In fact, one senior living facility saw an increase in client happiness when the residents were given crickets as pets!)
  3. Can you afford the immediate and long-term costs of caring for an animal? Examples include food, toys, bedding or litter, vet visits, basic healthcare, etc.
  4. Do you have adequate space for the animal? For example, I had a client living in an apartment who chose to get a guinea pig as an emotional support animal because it fit their lifestyle and living situation. Emotional support animals do not always have to be dogs (or cats).

When You are Unable to Have an Emotional Support Animal, but Still Want Access

If an emotional support or therapy animal is not a good fit for you at this time, then you may still reap the benefits of an emotional support animal by seeking out a provider or organization that provides this resource.  There are a number of ways to do this:

  • If you are seeking an individual therapist who has an emotional support animal, many of them include this information on their websites or in directory listings. You can search for therapists in your area using sites like Psychology TodayZencare, or Good Therapy. Please note that different providers will utilize therapy animals in different ways.  In some instances, the therapy animal may simply be present in the office with you to provide comfort and support.  In other cases, your provider may integrate the animal into your therapy (for example, using dog training skills as a way for clients to practice setting boundaries and speaking with confidence).
    • For those who are specifically interested in equine-assisted therapy (also known as “hippotherapy”) you can visit the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) or American Hippotherapy Association to find a facility in your area. Note that most equine-assisted therapy is currently focused on occupational therapy, physical therapy, or speech therapy. However, there are a small number of providers offering equine-assisted psychotherapy.
  • If you are interested in having an animal visit a group setting, you can connect with a local chapter of the following therapy animal organizations to inquire about having a volunteer visit your facility:

Obtaining a Service Animal

A service animal differs from an emotional support or therapy animal.  According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), “service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” In the case of mental health, service dogs may remind people to take medication, calm a person with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, disrupt repetitive behaviors in children with Autism, or alert a Bi-Polar individual of a manic episode (to name a few examples.) Service animals are highly trained, working on their skills anywhere from two to three years. The average cost of training a service dog is $17,000 – or about $1,000/year over the course of an animal’s lifetime.  Some people elect to train their own service animals with guidance from a qualified trainer, while others seek out organizations that train and provide animals.  In some instances, service animals may be donated to individuals, whereas other individuals may elect to pay the costs up-front. Regardless of how you choose to pursue obtaining a service animal, it is important that you consider the points made above in “Deciding Whether an Emotional Support Animal is Right for You,” to ensure you are prepared for the time, commitment, and cost of a service animal.

Some organizations to research if you are interested in a service animal include:

  • 4 Paws for Ability: provides service dogs for children with autism
  • Diggity Dogs: provides psychiatric service dogs, medical alert dogs, and mobility service dogs
  • K9s for Warriors: provides service dogs for veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Canines for Hope: assists people with locating service dogs for PTSD (regardless of the type of trauma) and pairing people with psychiatric service dogs
  • Service Dogs for America: accepts applications from both military and non-military individuals for PTSD service dogs
  • Assistance Dogs International: provides a directory of organizations that provide service dogs (psychiatric and otherwise) based on your state
  • Midnight Sun Service Dogs: provides service dogs for clients with a variety of psychiatric concerns, including: agoraphobia, anxiety disorders, bi-polar disorder, major depressive disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, PTSD, and social anxiety disorder

Note: this post is intended as an introductory resource for people interested in emotional support animals (also known as therapy animals) and service animals. If seeking an emotional support or service animal, it is important to do your research, speak with friends, family members, or a therapist about your wishes, and to consider the pros & cons of working with a therapy or service animal. Service animals and therapy animals also should not be considered as a substitute for formal mental health treatment.

*Source: information contained in this blog post was largely obtained during a day-long workshop on Animal-Assisted Interventions offered by PESI, an organization offering continuing education to professionals working in various industries throughout the country. If you would like information about when this workshop may be offered in your area, please click here. The workshop was facilitated by Jonathan Jordan, MSW, LCSW.