Is a Therapy Pet Right For You?

Disclaimer: The post is developed in partnership with BetterHelp.

Living with a mental health condition like anxiety, depression or PTSD can be challenging, but many people have found tremendous relief through the companionship of a service animal. These animals – typically dogs – are specially trained to perform tasks that can help alleviate symptoms associated with mental health conditions. 

Considering the option of working with a service animal is a significant decision, one that can greatly impact your daily life. Before embarking on this journey, it’s crucial to understand whether you meet the criteria for having a service animal.

Let’s take a look

Understanding “Disability” under the ADA
The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a service animal handler with a disability as someone who fits into one of the following categories:

• Physical or mental impairment: This includes a broad range of conditions affecting either the body or the mind.

• History or record of impairment: Even if a condition has resolved or is in remission, past discrimination based on this impairment is protected.

• Regarded as having an impairment: Perception of disability by others, even if inaccurate, falls under ADA protection.

Breaking Down “Impairment” and “Major Life Activities”

• Physical impairments: These encompass physiological disorders or conditions affecting body systems, such as mobility issues or impaired vision.

• Mental impairments: Conditions like depression, anxiety, PTSD or ADHD fall under this category.

• Major life activities: basic functions like eating, walking, thinking and working. If an impairment substantially limits these activities, it meets ADA criteria.

Eligible Mental Disabilities
The ADA recognizes the following mental and physical health conditions as qualifying for a service animal:

• Depression and depressive disorders

• Anxiety disorders and phobias

• Bipolar disorders

• PTSD, trauma and stress-related disorders

• Autism

• Multiple Sclerosis 

• Sensory disabilities, such as blindness or deafness

• ALS

• Cancer

• Arthritis

Types of Service Animals
It’s important to understand the distinctions among emotional support animals, service animals, and therapy animals before deciding which one is best for you. Let’s break down the differences and consider which might be the best fit for your needs.

Emotional Support Animals: Providing Comfort and Support
Emotional support animals offer companionship and emotional support to individuals with various emotional and mental health conditions. Unlike service dogs and therapy dogs, they don’t require special training beyond being well-behaved and suitable for their owner’s lifestyle. They also are not granted access to public areas. However, emotional support animals are protected under the Fair Housing Act, which allows them to live with their owners in housing that may otherwise prohibit pets.

Service Animals: Enabling Independence
Psychiatric service animals are trained to perform specific tasks to support people experiencing mental health conditions. They undergo rigorous training and have legal access to public spaces, including restaurants and airplanes. PSAs provide practical assistance to their handlers, such as interrupting negative behaviors, providing grounding during panic attacks, and assisting with daily chores. 

Helpful tasks also may include waking their handler up, providing stimulation through touch, retrieving items and reminding the handler to take medication. In short, psychiatric service animals play a vital role in helping their handlers effectively manage mental health symptoms.

Therapy Animals: Spreading Comfort and Joy
Therapy animals are trained to provide emotional support in various settings like nursing homes, schools and hospitals. Unlike psychiatric service and emotional support animals, they do not have legal privileges regarding housing or travel and are typically owned by volunteers who undergo training with their dogs. 

Therapy dogs provide a therapeutic presence to individuals in high-stress environments – they are well-trained to offer comfort and affection to groups of people, but they do not serve just one person.

Choosing the Right Assistance Animal for You
It’s important to determine what type of support you need from a service animal. First, assess your lifestyle and where you need assistance. If you need assistance with tasks related to a disability, a service animal might be the best choice. If you seek emotional support and companionship, an emotional support animal could be what you need.

You should also make sure you understand the training and responsibilities associated with each type of assistance animal. For example, service animals must undergo extensive training for specific tasks, while emotional support animals primarily offer companionship and don’t require intense training.

In short, service animals can be invaluable companions for people experiencing mental health conditions. They offer practical assistance and emotional support to help manage symptoms and improve overall well-being. However, it’s essential to consider your specific needs and circumstances when deciding what kind of service animal s right for you. 

Consult with your therapist and explore your options to find the best form of support for your mental health journey.

 

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