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What Counselling Therapists Should Know About Emotional Support Animals

Woman cuddles, plays with her dog at home because of the corona virus pandemic covid-19

It’s widely understood that raising and nurturing any kind of domesticated animal, from a dog to a cat, bird, or small rodent, can be beneficial. Many families and individuals appear to understand the enrichment pet ownership can bring to the household, and will attest to the positive impact the pet has on the home.

For others, an animal companion holds a much more important meaning. Studies have increasingly shown that animal companions have the capacity to assist those who experience significant loneliness, as well as individuals who have a range of mental health conditions (Brooks et al., 2018). 

With this research in mind, health practitioners are increasingly recommending Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) (sciencedaily.com, 2019). To understand more on the link between the ESA and mental health benefits, we examine research on the subject more closely below.

Defining the Emotional Support Animal

The emotional support animal can be categorized as a pet prescribed by a mental health professional to relieve loneliness and provide companionship. An emotional support animal can also help alleviate the symptoms of various mental health conditions—most commonly depression, anxiety, and phobias (Schoenfeld-Tacher et al., 2017). ESAs have not been trained in specific tasks to assist people living with disabilities (Schoenfeld-Tacher et al., 2017).

This role is not to be confused with that of the therapy animal, categorized as an animal trained to provide affection and comfort to people in specific settings (animalplanet.com, 2020). These animals are often found working within such environments as schools, nursing homes, hospitals, end of life facilities, and disaster areas (animalplanet.com, 2020), and also usually have a handler present during interactions with others (healthline, 2020). The ESA must also not be thought of as a service animal, which is most commonly a dog that has been highly trained to perform certain duties to benefit an individual living with a disability such as blindness, hearing disabilities, conditions causing seizures, and other inhibiting physical conditions (animalplanet.com, 2020). Service animals are also trained to perform specific tasks to assist people living with sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other forms of mental disabilities (Schoenfeld-Tacher et al., 2017). 

Certification of the Animal Explained

While any number of pet companions can be considered an ESA—including a dog, cat, bird, rat, horse, fish, and more—the critical factor in the pet’s designation is certification, typically coming from a doctor, psychiatrist, social worker, or other kind of mental health professional (API Behavioral Health System, 2020). These health professionals must provide confirmation, usually in the form of a letter, to prove the animal alleviates the symptoms of the condition experienced by the owner (API Behavioral Health System, 2020).  

Research has revealed that emotional support animals can help to alleviate the symptoms of a range of mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, chronic stress, PTSD, social shyness, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, agoraphobia, and other phobias (ESA doctors, 2020). Doctors who have recommended the use of a certified ESA to patients have noted a marked improvement in all kinds of areas of their lives, including greater self-esteem, an increase in motivation and feelings of security, and an increased sense of purpose (ESA doctors, 2020).  

Why Emotional Support Animals Are Thought to Assist With Mental Wellbeing

Those taking counselling therapist training will no doubt be interested to hear more about the research exploring the link between ESAs and improvements to mental health. Many studies have looked at the science behind the benefits of individuals spending time with ESAs and therapy animals. One study showed a significant drop in stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, as well as a rise in health inducing hormones such as oxytocin, dopamine, and endorphins (Uyemura, 2018). 

Those keeping animals as pet companions experience the same benefits, feeling less lonely, anxious, or depressed when handling and caressing their animal, and in some cases just being in its presence. As an example, some research has shown that people living in nursing homes become more active when keeping a pet in their daily routine (ESA doctors.com, 2020). Additional scientific benefits observed in owners of ESAs have included a normalized heart rate and blood pressure as a result of spending time with their pets (ESAdoctors.com). 

The critical factor for the mental health benefit appears to be the person’s capacity to bond on an emotional level with the animal. One study pointed to the need the animal fills of providing consistent affection and comfort, with some pets responding intuitively to their owners as if having a sense of when needed most (Brooks et al., 2018). Other pet owners were observed to take comfort in being able to express their feelings to their ESAs without judgement (Brooks et al., 2018). Research has shown that “By providing unconditional positive regard, pets promoted emotional stability through the regulation of feelings, management of stress and helping people to cope with difficult life events. For people living alone, pets provided a source of ‘connectedness’, reassurance, and normalcy”(Brooks et al., 2018).

ESAs can fill the void of loneliness and provide affection to their owners

Why This Knowledge Will Serve Those Seeking a Counselling Therapist Career

The person in the counselling therapist role often assists clients who have depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions resulting from trauma, abuse, addiction, or other issues, as well as from relationship or family problems. When trying to devise a unique counselling plan customized to a client’s needs, the therapist will generally look to several options for helping the individual to achieve mental, spiritual, and physical wellness. An emotional support animal can be considered as a supplementary option to be used along with other more conventional counselling interventions (Uyemura, 2018).  

With this in mind, the counselling therapist may choose to present the idea of the emotional support animal as a viable option, which the client can further explore with the help of other designated health and mental health professionals. Many clients may be unaware of the scientifically based mental health benefits of pet ownership, or the accommodations to pets certified as an ESA that would make such ownership a more widely accessible option. These clients may appreciate being enlightened through discussions of the ample existing research in the area. 

Are you interested in pursuing a counselling therapist career?

Contact Rhodes Wellness College today to learn more about its specialized Wellness Counselling Diploma Program!

Works Cited:

Animal Planet.com (2020). Not Just Semantics: The Difference Between Service, Therapy and Emotional Support Animals. Retrieved from


API Behavioral Health System, (2020). How Emotional Support Animals Benefit Mental Health and Wellness. Retrieved from


Brandi-Ann Uyemura (2018). The Truth About Animal Assisted Therapy. Retrieved from


C. W. Von Bergen (2015). Emotional Support Animals, Service Animals, and Pets on Campus. Retrieved from


ESA Doctors.com (2020). Mental Health Benefits of an Emotional Support Animal. Retrieved from


Healthline.com (2020). Pet Therapy. Retrieved from


Helen Loise Brooks et al (2018). The power of support from companion animals for people living with mental health problems: a systematic review and narrative synthesis of the evidence. Retrieved from


Regina Schoenfeld-Tacher et al., (2017). Public Perceptions of Service Dogs, Emotional Support Dogs, and Therapy Dogs. Retrieved from


Science Daily.com (2019). The growing trend of emotional support animals. Retrieved from


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