Having a loyal companion by your side can never be a bad thing. But when it comes to emotional support animals (ESAs), the benefits tend to go beyond the basics, with research showing plenty of evidence that ESAs can support people with depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other mental and emotional health disorders. 

We’ve long understood the therapeutic effects of pets. As far back as the 1970s, researchers have been bringing animals (typically dogs) into psychiatric settings to improve the daily lives of patients. And in recent decades, “pet therapy,” a term first coined in 1964, has become a first line response in the wake of natural disasters and other tragedies. 

On a smaller scale, ESAs can offer therapeutic support to everyday individuals who are struggling with one or more mental health conditions. Below, we’re exploring how, with a look at the many ways that emotional support animals help their caregivers, including science-backed evidence that ESAs provide much more than just a shoulder to lean on.

A Look at the Mental Health Benefits of Emotional Support Animals

Under both federal and state laws, an ESA is an animal who helps alleviate symptoms of a disability (i.e., severe mental and emotional health issues) for their human. ESAs are distinct from service animals, who are rigorously trained to perform certain assistive tasks, but can offer significant quality of life improvements to their people.

We still have much to learn about how ESAs – and animals in general – improve our mental well-being. However, current research suggests that there’s more to it than just the overall benefits of the human-animal bond – and that’s good news for the more than one in five Americans who currently struggle with a mental illness. 

Here’s a look at those mental health benefits and what the research has to say about how emotional support animals help us feel better. 


Simply being in the presence of a trusted animal companion can have a long-lasting effect on mental wellness. 

A meta-analysis on human-animal relationships found ongoing support for the notion that animals offer psychological improvements for individuals in isolating environments like nursing homes and prisons. Meanwhile, a study done in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic found animal companionship to be particularly useful for combating the social isolation and loneliness many people experienced during and after global lockdowns. 

While an animal doesn’t have to be a certified ESA in order to offer companionship, those who suffer from severe social isolation may experience profound benefits from their presence. In fact, the social support benefits offered by animals mirror that of parents or siblings, and ESAs can provide affection, distraction, and security in a way that some individuals may find hard to attain from other humans. 

Depression and Anxiety

Even short interactions with animals can improve symptoms of depression and anxiety. This is partly due to biology, with human-animal interactions causing an increase in oxytocin, the “love” hormone, and a decrease in cortisol, the “stress” hormone. 

For those with depression, the emotional bond they have with their ESA can greatly mediate a depressive mood, even at times when human support fails to do so. A recent study agrees that pet parents were 41% less depressed than non-pet parents – a statement that lends serious support to the idea that ESAs are uniquely able to address various depressive symptoms. 

As for anxiety, the emotional stability and regulation offered by ESAs on both a biological and social level can be instrumental in relieving anxious thoughts and behaviors. This is true for those with generalized anxiety disorder, as well as those with social anxiety, panic disorder, or phobias. 

Do ESAs Actually Help?
An ESA can help people with depression or anxiety cope with their disorder.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

The relationship with an ESA is solid, providing unconditional love without the fear of overstepping boundaries. And for those with PTSD, this can be instrumental in gaining the confidence to push the limits of their own comfort.

Studies have found that animals can help regulate emotions in times of stress, in turn increasing a person’s ability to cope with traumatic life events. This type of support may help an individual with PTSD feel more in control when experiencing acute symptoms of trauma and could also reduce the severity of PTSD symptoms such as dissociation and anxiety. 

Much of the research on emotional support animals and PTSD has focused on veterans, a group of people who are at an increased risk of trauma disorders. These analyses tend to show that while animal companionship doesn’t stop painful memories from occurring, it does lessen the impact and improve an individual’s ability to cope. 


There’s not a whole lot of data on the effects of ESAs on people with autism. That being said, there is promising research on the use of animal-assisted therapy in autism treatment, with findings that bode well for individual use of ESAs. 

One such meta-analysis noted the various emotional benefits of animal therapy for children with autism, including improved self-confidence and behavioral learning outcomes. It’s suggested that children with autism also experience sensory benefits from touching animals and having them nearby. 

Also notable is the ability of ESAs to help with the learning and/or social impairments that people with autism may struggle with. Because they are non-judgmental, animals are a perfect audience for individuals to practice new skills so they can build confidence for real-world applications. 

Could you benefit from an ESA?

By now, it should be clear that emotional support animals can help all types of people. The benefits noted above, plus a myriad of other ESA benefits, make ESAs an invaluable support system for dealing with issues that are common to certain mental health disorders, learning disabilities, and cognitive disorders. They offer relief in ways that may not be possible with medication and therapy alone. 

An ESA can’t cure a mental illness. However, what it can do is provide reliable love and support through life’s most challenging moments. And if you’re struggling with your mental health, that could be just the thing you need to start feeling more like yourself again.