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Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) and emotional support animals

Reviewed by Brooks Baer, LCPC, CMHP

A woman lays in a hospital bed, petting a dog that lays on the bed and looks at her while a smiling worker sits nearby

What is animal-assisted therapy?

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is the use of animals alongside traditional treatment techniques to help people with certain mental health disorders. It’s also called “pet therapy” or “pet-assisted therapy.” Involving animals in treatment can help people with developmental disorders, disabilities, and other concerns.

Types of support animals

Animals who help people with their physical and/or mental health needs are classified according to their different roles:

  • Emotional support animals (ESAs) support people who are struggling with their mental or emotional health. Any animal can be an ESA, and they may or may not have specific training. However, you need a mental health professional’s backing to have your pet designated as an ESA, and they don’t have the same rights as service animals.
  • Service animals are specifically trained to perform tasks or otherwise assist people with disabilities. While they may assist people who have mental health conditions, relying on an animal for emotional support doesn’t automatically qualify it as a service animal.
  • Therapy animals help people achieve certain therapeutic goals, but they aren’t owned by those individuals. Instead they’re owned by organizations or facilities such as hospitals, libraries, or outpatient clinics.

Benefits of animal-assisted therapy

This type of therapy can offer the following benefits:

What can animal-assisted therapy help treat?

AAT has proven useful for conditions including:

Where can you find animal-assisted therapy?

AAT can be offered as individual or group therapy. Animals may be brought to specific places for people in need, such as hospitals or prisons, or they may live at a dedicated facility, like a farm. Common settings for AAT include:

  • Campuses: Some colleges and universities bring therapy dogs to campus to help students manage stress, especially around finals.
  • Equestrian training programs: Horses have been used to help people with physical and mental disabilities, behavioral issues, and other mental health concerns.
  • Hospitals: Therapy dogs can be used to help patients, especially children, feel safe. They can also help patients’ families feel more comfortable.
  • Libraries: Some libraries offer reading services in which children read to dogs to practice their literacy skills.
  • Senior living communities: Therapy animals are often used to engage residents in senior living facilities.
  • Prisons: Therapy animals can offer support to imprisoned people or their visiting families.

What do emotional support animals do?

Emotional support animals (ESAs) offer emotional and mental support to their owners. They may be specifically trained as ESAs, or they may simply be pets. Almost any domesticated animal can be an ESA, including dogs, cats, birds, pigs, hamsters, mice, rabbits, and miniature horses.

Benefits of emotional support animals

ESAs can help lessen symptoms of certain mental health disorders, including:

It’s important to note that emotional support animals can’t cure mental illness. They’re one part of a complete mental health treatment plan. ESAs are typically used alongside therapy practices such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).

Can a landlord deny you housing if you have an ESA?

It depends. ESAs are covered under the Fair Housing Act. In most scenarios, that means a landlord can’t legally deny you housing, and you shouldn’t have to pay a pet deposit. However, there are exceptions to the law.1

Can you take your emotional support animal on an airplane?

Airlines are no longer required to allow emotional support animals on flights. Most airlines treat ESAs like regular pets.

How do you qualify for an emotional support animal?

In order for your pet to be recognized as an emotional support animal, you must receive an ESA certification letter from a licensed therapist or medical professional. The letter must state that your animal is a key part of your mental health treatment plan.

Emotional support animals can be a source of comfort, but a well-rounded treatment plan is needed to address mental health issues. Browse our directory to connect with a licensed therapist near you.

About the author

The editorial team at works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.