Over the past two decades, people with psychiatric illnesses began to use animals for assistance and companionship. Everyone who has had a pet in their lifetime can probably agree that animals are therapeutic. They seem to be able to sense when you are in a bad mood and can quickly turn that around. Do you think that an animal could help out with your mental illness? If you are in the market to get one, or already have an animal but need to register it with your school or housing, there are some things you need to know.
There are three main types of animals that help out with psychiatric illnesses: emotional support animals, psychiatric service animals, and therapy animals. I am going to focus on the first two because therapy animals are generally not owned by people with mental illnesses. They are usually brought into schools, hospitals, and retirement homes by invitation. That leaves us with ESAs and PSAs. Luckily, I have personal experience with both of these types of animals. Let’s start out by reviewing the laws that allow those with mental illnesses to keep these animals.
The Law: Emotional Support Animals vs. Psychiatric Service Animals
According to the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), psychiatric service animals can only be dogs or miniature horses. The definition of a service dog is one that is “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.” These animals have public access and are allowed to go anywhere you are. This means you can take them to school, work, and anywhere else dogs typically aren’t allowed. According to the Fair Housing Act, they are allowed to live in places where they aren’t pet-friendly. They are also allowed to fly with you in the main carriage of planes due to the Air Carrier Access Act.
Emotional support animals do not have to be trained to perform tasks for your disability. They can simply provide you comfort. They can also be any type of animal. However, these animals are not allowed public access. They are covered by the Fair Housing Act and Air Carrier Access Act, allowing you to live with them and take them on planes.
For more detailed information regarding the laws about service animals, please read this article from the ADA itself.
Which One is Right for You?
There is a lot to take into account when deciding between a psychiatric service animal and an emotional support animal. Here are two main questions you need to ask yourself:
- Do I need an animal in public places?
- Does this animal need to be trained to help me with my illness?
If you said yes to either of these questions, I would recommend a psychiatric service animal.
Psychiatric Service Animals
I am an intern at a local non-profit service dog organization that specializes in training psychiatric service dogs. These dogs are trained from a young age to perform over 100 tasks that assist those with mental illnesses. These dogs can alert you when you are displaying signs of stress (e.g. biting your nails, scratching your arms), position themselves to provide more space for you, wake you from nightmares, and much more. My organization takes each client’s needs into account and trains the dog especially for them. Due to this, it generally takes two years for a dog to be placed with a client.
Additionally, it is expensive. Organizations like mine spend two years training, feeding, and providing medical care for these dogs. Due to this, they cost between $8,000 to $15,000 (depending on what organization you go to). Unfortunately, this isn’t covered by insurance. There are some organizations out there that can help you raise money for a service dog, but a lot of the financial responsibility does fall on the client.
While it may take a long time and cost a lot to receive a dog, I believe the benefits of the dog outweigh both of those cons. You are granted access to take this dog wherever you go, which can give clients the confidence to leave their home and do things on their own. They are also trained especially for you. These dogs know exactly when you are displaying signs of distress and know how to help.
*You can also train your own dog, but I do not have any experience with this which is why I am focusing on the organizations that provide you with one.
Emotional Support Animals
ESAs are a lot easier to obtain than PSAs. They can be an animal that you already have and also do not have to be a dog or miniature horse. For example, I am in the process of registering my two rabbits (that I already had) as emotional support animals. One important thing to take note of is that these animals are not specially trained. Yes, my rabbits are great, but they are not trained to alert me to signs of distress like psychiatric service animals. I utilize them when I am having a panic attack by placing one on my chest and petting it. They are also great to have as companions on a day-to-day basis.
There are a lot of misconceptions about ESAs. Please do not fall for scams that make you register them online for hundreds of dollars! This is not necessary! You are only required to provide documentation for your ESA when it comes to housing or airlines. This documentation can be provided by your therapist/psychiatrist and veterinarian.
Do You Qualify for Either?
For psychiatric service animals, this depends greatly on the organization you are applying to. In general, you will need to fill out an application detailing why you need one. You will need to provide your medical history and the organization will often want to speak with your therapist or psychiatrist.
When it comes to emotional support animals, this will depend on where you live. If you attend university and live on-campus, schools will have special forms for you to fill out. This mainly requires a note from your therapist or psychiatrist saying that the animal benefits you and a note from your veterinarian saying your animal is healthy.
In both cases, the main thing you will need is the support of your therapist or psychiatrist.
Other Important Information
You are not required to disclose why you need either an ESA or a PSA, even to your housing! All the letter from your doctor needs to state is that the animal benefits you. It does not have to go into detail how it does or why it does. Under the ADA, you are allowed privacy.
Additionally, your animal is not a machine! They are living, breathing creatures. Even if it is trained, it is not going to perform at its peak 100% of the time. They need time to play just like other animals!
This article is largely based on the experiences I have had with my own university & housing and my internship (both based in Massachusetts). I encourage you to do research about obtaining an ESA or PSA in your area because it may be different from state-to-state.
If you have any further questions, please leave me a comment or email me at email@example.com!