Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 9/28/2022
Getting an emotional support animal (ESA) can be a rewarding and life-changing experience, but it’s also a big decision. There are many ways to look at the question of what animals make the best emotional support animals — how do you decide?
Depending on what you already know about your needs, your animal preferences and your budget, chances are you may already have a pretty good idea of what kind of animal would make the ideal ESA for you. But there are many questions you should ask yourself before adopting one.
Let’s be clear: despite some internet ridicule of people abusing the system, an animal companion can help individuals with a mental illness, a mental disability or another mental health issue. It’s just a question of the right animal for someone’s given support needs.
If you’re moving toward final decisions for an ESA, we’ve collected some important information about what animals make the best ESAs for your consideration. Before we take you to the pet shop, though, we first need to take you to pet school — starting with a look at what actually makes an ESA.
Emotional support animals have gotten a lot of media coverage over the last few years, between the exotic pet selection by some folks, to fill the role and the videos of those exotic animals joining their owners on flights and in other public places.
But as much as we’d like to jump straight to talking about peacocks in coach, there are some very basic things we need to discuss about ESAs.
Any domesticated animal can technically become an ESA. So, whether it’s a pet, a farm animal or something in between, there are a lot of friends welcome at the table besides dogs and cats.
Four-legged friends abound, but four legs aren’t a prerequisite. What is a prerequisite in many cases are formal documents like emotional support animal letters or documentation from a healthcare professional.
Another is that they should not be considered a nuisance in public places — that means that they must be well-trained (or at least well-controlled) wherever they go.
This is a good time to talk about some other service animals. ESAs are different than pets in that pets have not been formally trained, qualified or labeled as an ESA. However, that’s not to say they don’t fulfill some of the same purposes when you’re at home.
Therapy animals, meanwhile, do similar work to ESAs, but they do so for groups of people or in environments like hospitals and nursing homes, rather than for a single individual who has needs.
Lastly, ESAs are different than service animals like guide dogs, hearing dogs, seizure response dogs and psychiatric service dogs, which have formal training. These animals must be dogs trained to perform the specific tasks set out under their labeled job.
Properly trained psychiatric service dogs can cost $30,000 according to some experts, though they can be funded in some circumstances.
The point is that in comparison to a service dog, an ESA is comparably inexpensive, requires much less training and is a highly personal decision to make. They exist in a sort of intermediate space between service animal and pet. They’re neither, but the space between the two categories actually affords some protections under the Fair Housing Act.
As many people know, an ESA can be where a pet cannot, like in a dorm room or other housing space where pets are prohibited. Housing providers can’t deny emotional support dogs or other animals within reason.
So that’s what ESAs are — now let’s look at what they do.
So, what does an ESA actually do, though?
There are no special skills that differentiate an ESA from a well-trained pet. An ESA isn’t supposed to fetch you a weighted blanket on a bad day, and while they may learn to sense your moods, there’s no special training they must go through for this task.
ESAs don’t really do tasks, to be honest. You might be able to train them to do a few tricks, sure, but that’s neither a requirement nor an expectation for an animal to fill the role.
ESAs are largely there for the support factor. Should you have a panic attack or need comfort from your anxiety, for instance, an ESA is really just a pet you’re allowed to bring along for that purpose, with a professional’s approval.
Pets, for the record, can also be beneficial for your mental health in some cases. Plenty of evidence has demonstrated that pets provide clear benefits to people with mental health conditions, largely through their connection with their owners.
They’re good companions during times of crisis, and while there are a lot of unknowns about how to create the ideal support relationship, pets can be a tool for managing symptoms of emotional distress during hard times.
They can be helpful when dealing with symptoms of things like depression, anxiety, PTSD and social anxiety, and can help people with autism.
Okay, so you’re sold on emotional support animals. How do you pick one?
Well, for starters, you might consider registering an existing pet. If you have a well-behaved dog or a super chill cat, they might be game to be good in public spaces, which could provide you with benefits if you have social anxiety.
The most important thing to consider when choosing an ESA is what you think you’ll gain the most support from. An animal that can sit in your lap provides a very different experience from a dog that nearly outweighs you. A cat person probably won’t prefer a dog, and rabbits are probably more adorable than your standard goldfish.
All of this is truly subjective, but there are some big-picture, objective considerations you should make when choosing an animal to be your ESA.
A well-trained ESA is key to reducing friction in situations like classrooms or airline travel.
Animals like pigs that can squeal loudly, pets that can’t be potty trained and animals that won’t respond to commands are probably not ideal companions if you spend a lot of time outside the home.
No, it’s not a contest, but the reality is that more popular and common pets are going to raise fewer eyebrows.
A lot of people remember the story about an emotional support peacock because, well, that’s unexpected.
And that animal got barred from flying, because, well, they’re different. The same goes for pigs.
Emotional support can be crucial in moments of need, but we’d advise planning with quite a few moments in mind.
As such, you may want to stay away from fish and smaller animals with comparably shorter lifespans.
Don’t get us wrong — you don’t necessarily need to opt for a tortoise or parrot (known for their incredible longevity), but a goldfish (known for their comparably short lifespan) might not be the most dependable partner.
Is the point of having an ESA for you the cuddle factor? Get something cuddly. There’s no scientific support for this, but common sense dictates that you’ll have an easier time cuddling with a chocolate lab than a hermit crab.
As helpful as emotional support animals may be to you, your individual needs for your mental health will benefit more from the human kind of support.
A mental health professional is a key member of (and partner for) your treatment journey, and they’ll be able to help you find the companionship of treatments that will work (and help you get your paperwork sorted out for an ESA, if need be).
If you’re not sure where to start looking for an ESA, a local adoption center may be a great option.
As for therapists, there are ways to find the right one of those too.
If you’re ready to start your mental health journey now, consider using our online therapy resources for your needs. We offer personalized care for mental health that you don’t have to leave home for.
If you’re walking an ESA every day, you might not have that time to spare anyway. So get started today.