Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health conditions worldwide, affecting over 40 million adults in the United States alone. While therapy and medication can be very effective, having an emotional support animal may also help manage anxiety symptoms.
Interacting with pets has been shown to reduce stress, loneliness, anxiety, and depression. Caring for an animal can give anxious people something positive to focus their attention on and provide comfort, companionship and unconditional love.
Best pets for anxiety
Certain animal traits may make a particular pet more suitable to help manage anxiety. Ideal pets are:
- Trainable and obedient to basic commands
- Affectionate and enjoy human interaction
- Relatively low maintenance and easily cared for
- Adaptable and able to handle stress
- Portable or small enough to travel with their owner
With these considerations in mind, below are some of the top pets for anxiety and emotional support:
Dogs are very common emotional support animals for anxiety. Their outgoing and affectionate nature allows them to form strong bonds with their owners. Several dog breeds have calm and sensitive dispositions that make them excellent service dogs.
Some examples of dog breeds often recommended for anxiety include:
- Labrador Retriever – Even-tempered, gentle, loyal. Often chosen as guide dogs.
- Poodle – Intelligent, adaptable and hypoallergenic. Excellent service dogs.
- Cavalier King Charles Spaniel – Affectionate, gentle and happy to be held.
- Havanese – Playful and trainable. Thrives on human interaction.
- Pug – Charming, mischievous and entertaining. Very attached to their owner.
Larger breeds like Golden Retrievers and Standard Poodles have the training aptitude to serve as full service dogs, while smaller breeds can provide companionship and emotional support as therapy dogs.
Despite their somewhat independent nature, cats can also make excellent emotional support animals. A cat’s purring and kneading motions release endorphins that can have a calming effect. Cats are generally quiet, low maintenance, and good for small living spaces.
Some recommended cat breeds for anxiety include:
- Ragdoll – Affectionate, gentle and enjoy being held.
- Maine Coon – Good-natured and adaptable. Often chosen for their size.
- Persian – Sweet-tempered and thrive on human interaction.
- Siamese – Social, intelligent and form strong bonds with owners.
- Scottish Fold – Loving, calm and enjoy sitting on their owner’s lap.
While any breed can potentially make a good support cat, the ones mentioned tend to have extremely friendly personalities.
Other small pets
For those who may be allergic to cats and dogs or live in places that restrict them, small pets like birds, hamsters, and rabbits can also help with anxiety.
Benefits of smaller pets for anxiety relief include:
- Being portable and able to travel with their owner
- Lower maintenance care
- Quiet and less disruptive to others
- Lower cost of care
Some examples of small pets that can be very soothing for anxious individuals include:
- Rabbits – Can be litter-box trained and very comforting to pet.
- Guinea Pigs – Gentle, social animals that love being held.
- Birds – Birds like parakeets and cockatiels can provide soothing companionship.
- Fish – The hypnotic motion of fish can lower anxiety and stress.
- Rats – Highly intelligent and bond strongly once trained. Often used as therapy animals.
Benefits of pets for managing anxiety
Interacting with animals has been shown to produce numerous benefits that can aid anxious individuals, such as:
- Lowering physiological signs of stress – Petting animals can lower blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol levels.
- Soothing effect of touch – Stroking soft fur can stimulate pressure receptors under the skin in a calming way.
- Companionship and comfort – Alleviates feelings of loneliness and isolation.
- Unconditional love and acceptance – Pets don’t judge anxiety or insecurities.
- Distraction from worries – Taking focus off anxious thoughts and rumination.
- Routine and responsibility – Caring for a pet’s needs provides a sense of purpose.
- Motivation for exercise – Dog walking gets owners active and outdoors.
- Social facilitator – Pets can spark up friendly human interactions while out in public.
The structure and routine involved with pet care can also be very therapeutic for anxiety. Simple responsibilities like feeding, grooming, walking, and playtime can help create regular patterns for anxious owners.
Considerations before getting a pet for anxiety
While pets can certainly help manage anxiety symptoms, they do require responsibility and commitment. Some important things those with anxiety should consider before getting an emotional support animal include:
- Costs of pet care – Food, medical care, grooming and other expenses need to be accounted for.
- Pet insurance – Recommended to cover any unexpected veterinary bills.
- Exercise needs – Dogs especially require regular walks and activity.
- Pet temperament – Matching pets to your personality and lifestyle.
- Training requirements – Housebreaking and obedience training take time and patience.
- Space requirements – Pets need room to move around comfortably.
- Pet arrangements if traveling – Kennels, pet-sitters or bringing them along.
- Long-term commitment – Pets may live 10+ years depending on type.
While challenging at times, the unconditional love and support pets provide can make the responsibilities completely worthwhile for anxiety relief.
Getting an emotional support animal
People with anxiety who want an emotional support animal first need an ESA letter from a licensed mental health professional. This letter legally allows you to have an ESA in no-pet housing. To get an ESA letter, you must:
- Be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder or other mental health condition by a psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist, or other qualified mental health professional.
- Have your mental health provider recommend an emotional support animal to help manage symptoms.
- Obtain an ESA letter stating you require the animal for your mental health.
This letter doesn’t need to state your specific diagnosis, just that an ESA is recommended for you. You’ll also want to check any restrictions your housing may have regarding type and size of pet to choose one that meets guidelines.
Training a pet to be an ESA
No special training is required for a pet to become an emotional support animal. However, basic obedience training is still recommended so they can be well-behaved in public.
Some important commands to teach any ESA include:
- Sit – Helps control hyperactivity and jumping up.
- Stay – Prevents chasing or wandering off.
- Heel/Come – Walking nicely on a leash without pulling.
- Leave it/Drop it – Redirects chewing inappropriate items.
- Down – Settles the animal beside you if anxious.
Proper socialization is also very important for ESAs when they are young. This gets them comfortable being handled, being around new people, loud noises, and traveling in cars or public transit.
While formal service dog training isn’t required, some ESA owners may benefit from taking obedience classes. This can further refine the pet’s behavior and response to commands.
Public access rights for ESAs
Emotional support animals provide comfort in the home and don’t have public access rights like service dogs. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, ESAs are only allowed in:
- Airplanes – With proper documentation airlines must allow ESAs in the cabin.
- Housing – Landlords can’t deny ESAs in no-pet housing with an ESA letter.
Everywhere else, like restaurants, stores and other public spaces can legally deny entry to ESAs. However, some individual business may still allow well-behaved ESAs at their own discretion.
Choosing the right ESA for you
Picking the ideal emotional support animal is a very personal choice based on your needs, lifestyle and preferences. Key factors to consider are:
- Space – Size limitations of housing or travel situations.
- Noise level – Barking or vocal animals may increase anxiety.
- Grooming needs – Shedding and cleaning requirements.
- Attention needs – Time available to interact with the pet.
- Activity level – Matching pets to your daily routine.
- Allergies – Reactions to dander may factor in.
- Experience with pets – First-time owners have a learning curve.
Also consider if there are certain animals that you gravitate towards or just feel a strong connection with. Pay attention to specific breeds, colors, sizes, ages and even genders that you are most comfortable with.
Where to get an ESA
Reputable sources to find an emotional support animal include:
- Animal shelters and rescues – Great way to give a pet in need a new home.
- ESA-specific organizations – Train and match pets to owners with disabilities.
- Reputable breeders – For specific purebred breeds.
- Friends/family – Adopting from someone you know. Allows you to meet pet first.
Be very wary of any online ads offering to instantly register your pet as an ESA or provide certification documents. The only valid ESA documentation is a letter from your mental health professional.
For those suffering from anxiety disorders, having an emotional support animal can provide companionship, comfort, and therapeutic benefits. Certain pets like dogs, cats, and other small animals seem particularly well-suited to serving as ESAs.
While caring for a pet is a responsibility, the unconditional love they provide can be life-changing. Taking the time to carefully select the right ESA that fits your needs and lifestyle is key to ensuring a mutually rewarding relationship.