Animal-assisted therapy and emotional support animals
Reviewed by therapist.com team
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 08/17/2023
AAT is a therapy that uses animals alongside a more traditional therapeutic approach to help people struggling with certain mental health disorders.
Animals can be used to help people with developmental disorders, disabilities, and more. However, AAT refers specifically to animals whose presence serves a mental health purpose. Pet therapy is the broader term that refers to AAT as well as other forms of animal assistance.
Certain animals offer specific services for different types of physical and mental health needs. There are legal classifications for different animals according to their intended purpose:
- Assistance animal: Assistance animals help individuals with disabilities. They may assist with or complete certain tasks, or they may provide emotional support that alleviates some of the effects of their owner’s disability. Assistance animals may or may not be specifically trained for their work.
- Emotional support animal (ESA): Emotional support animals provide emotional stability for individuals struggling with mental or emotional health. An ESA can be any animal and may or may not have specific training. However, individuals need the support of a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist or doctor, to have their pet legally designated as an ESA.
- Service animal: Service animals are specifically trained to assist with and complete tasks for individuals with disabilities. Service animals may be used for severe psychiatric purposes, but general emotional support is not considered when designating an animal as a service animal.
- Therapy animal: Therapy animals are not owned by individuals but instead owned by organizations or facilities providing some form of service or care, such as hospitals, libraries, or outpatient clinics. They help individuals achieve certain goals.
Animal-assisted therapy offers a number of benefits, including:
- Improved stress management
- Better self-regulation
- Higher self-esteem
- Lower anxiety
- Stronger socialization skills
- Increased sense of safety
AAT has proven effective for a variety of mental health disorders and related conditions, including:
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 reside at a dedicated facility, such as a farm. Common examples of animal-assisted therapy include:
- Campus therapy dogs: Many colleges and universities bring therapy dogs on campus to help students manage their stress, especially around finals.
- Equestrian training programs: Horses have been used to help individuals with both physical and mental disabilities.
- Hospital animals: Therapy dogs can be used in hospitals to help patients, particularly children, feel safe. They can also help families of patients.
- Reading dogs at libraries: Many libraries offer reading services in which children read to dogs to practice their literacy skills.
- Senior living engagement: Therapy animals are often used to engage elders in senior living facilities.
- Prison rehabilitation: Prisons may use therapy animals to offer support to those who are imprisoned or their visiting families.
If you would like animal-assisted therapy to be part of your mental health journey, browse our directory to find an AAT therapist near you. To find a program or organization specializing in AAT, check out the following:
ESAs offer emotional and mental support to their owners. They can be specifically trained to offer emotional support, or they can simply be a person’s pet. ESAs can be almost any domesticated animal that you can legally own, including dogs, cats, birds, pigs, hamsters, mice, rabbits, and miniature horses.
ESAs can help alleviate symptoms of multiple mental health disorders, including:
- Anxiety and phobias
- Bipolar disorder
- Personality disorders
It’s important to note that emotional support animals cannot cure mental illnesses. ESAs are simply one part of a person’s mental health treatment plan. ESAs are typically only prescribed alongside other forms of therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or acceptance & commitment therapy (ACT).
It depends. ESAs are covered under the Fair Housing Act. In most scenarios, that means that a landlord cannot legally deny you housing, and you should not have to pay a pet deposit. However, there are exceptions to the law.1
Airlines are no longer required to accommodate emotional support animals on their planes. Most airlines treat ESAs just like regular pets.
In order for your pet to become your emotional support animal, you must receive an ESA prescription letter from a licensed therapist or medical professional. This letter must state that your animal is a key part of your mental health treatment plan. If you’re interested in qualifying for an ESA, visit our directory to find a licensed therapist near you.
About the author
The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.