Seeing an Emotional Support Animal Doctor for Your Mental Health Condition

Depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions are more prevalent than ever before, largely thanks to improved techniques for recognizing and diagnosing them. While some people will require medication to help them manage their condition, there are several strategies that can limit or replace their dependence on prescription drugs. One of these is the use of therapy animals to provide emotional support.

Emotional support animals, also called therapy animals, are companion animals that help people manage the symptoms of their condition. For patients with anxiety, for example, these animals may provide a calming, therapeutic benefit. For patients whose conditions cause them to be socially withdrawn, these animals can alleviate feelings of loneliness. Emotional support animals are usually dogs or cats, but rabbits and other animals are not unheard of. There is one primary thing that differentiate an emotional support animal from a pet that provides emotional support– the owners of emotional support animals can get “no pets” policies waived in apartment buildings and on commercial airlines.

Though these animals provide a definite benefit to their owners, they are not the same as service animals. Service animals, like seeing eye or mobility dogs, are required to go through a rigorous training and certification program. Emotional support animals are not– all that’s required is for a doctor to write a note saying that their patient has a mental or psychiatric condition, and benefits from a therapy animal. Because of this difference, there are several places where service animals are allowed that emotional support animals are not. Trains, for example, are not required to let therapy animals on board with their owners, only service animals.

There are two primary benefits to seeing an ESA doctor. First, therapy animals are often allowed in places where regular companion animals are not. That said, they still may be required to provide documentation from their doctor that people with service animals are not. An ESA doctor will be able to provide the documents that these patients will need to be able to have their animals with them in places most regular pets can’t go. Second, therapy animals provide a non-drug way to manage the symptoms of a disability. This makes them of particular benefit to patients who don’t tolerate medications well, cannot take them reliably, or do not adequately benefit from medication alone.

When visiting a doctor to get emotional support animal documentation, there are some things that patients should expect. If they go to their primary doctors, they will review the patients’ medical histories, meet with the patient, discuss what kind of benefit they are getting or can reasonably expect to get from a companion animal, and write up the requisite notes. If they go to other doctors for a second opinion, patients should reasonably expect a longer consultation or exam as these doctors familiarize themselves with their disabilities and symptoms.

There are a few reasons why emotional support animal doctors are wiling to prescribe animals to help manage mental health conditions versus regular pharmaceuticals. One of them is that, along with an upswing in diagnosis, there has been an upswing in the number and variety of medications prescribed for them. Unfortunately, many of these medications have a high potential for abuse and addiction. Therapy animals represent a non-habit-forming way to help their patients.

Another reason is that managing mental health conditions isn’t a perfect science. There generally aren’t any blood tests or scans that can tell a doctor what’s working and why. This means that some patients may try several different medications and dosages before they find one that actually “fits” them and improve their symptoms, and may find that some medications they’ve tried have actually made their symptoms worse. Therapy animals don’t have this problem– a patient that has selected and bonded with a companion animal will benefit from that animal’s presence.

Yet another reason is that medications can take a long time to begin to have an effect– selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, can take weeks to ease symptoms of anxiety or depression. Therapy animals go to work much more quickly.

Medications also come with side effects. Many of these are mild and temporary, like dizziness or sleepiness, but not all of them are. Combining drugs that affect serotonin levels can even cause potentially lethal serotonin syndrome. Allergies to animal dander aside, emotional support animals don’t have any unpleasant side effects that patients need to worry about.

Many patients who are currently on medication to manage their condition would like to reduce their need for it. Therapy animals can alleviate some of the symptoms that their medications usually do, allowing these people to step down their dosages and develop non-drug coping mechanisms for dealing with their conditions. Best of all, therapy animals can be combined with any medication out there without the fear of dangerous drug interactions.

Lastly, emotional support animals work. Even among people without mental health conditions, human-animal interactions have a positive effect. Something as simple as petting a dog or cat has been found to lower blood pressure and cholesterol; significantly lower cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine levels; and trigger the release of hormones like oxytocin, serotonin, and prolactin.

Though science has improved by leaps and bounds when it comes to diagnosing and helping people manage a wide variety of mental health conditions, it isn’t entirely perfect. The use of emotional support animals represents a drug-free way to help patients help themselves.