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What to Know About Service Dogs and Depression

A service animal is specifically trained to help a person who lives with a disability. They can help people with different conditions like blindness, deafness, or epilepsy. These animals may perform tasks like pulling a wheelchair or providing balance when walking.1,2

Service animals can also be beneficial for people who have depression. Animals who help people with mental health conditions are called psychiatric service animals. Learning about the different types of services animals, how to qualify for a service dog if you have depression, and what tasks they may be able to help with can help you understand if a psychiatric service dog is right for you.

Types of service animals

It’s easy to confuse the different types of service animals. There are specific differences between a psychiatric service animal, an emotional support animal, and a therapy animal.

Psychiatric service animal

A psychiatric service animal is trained specifically for people who have a mental health condition such as:3

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Schizophrenia
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar disorder

These service animals can help with different tasks that may be difficult for you to do depending on your mental health condition.3

Emotional support animal

An animal that provides emotional support to their human is called an emotional support animal (ESA). ESAs can be any type of animal, but cats and dogs are the most common. These animals do not need to receive special training to become an ESA.3

If you have an ESA, your landlord must allow your pet to live with you, even if they have a no-pet policy.3

Most airlines allow your ESA to fly with you on an airplane at no additional cost as long as they meet certain size requirements. You may need to provide documentation from a licensed mental health professional that proves you have a recognized mental or emotional disability and you need your ESA to accompany you. Rules differ between airlines, so be sure to check with your specific airline before flying with your ESA.4

Emotional support animals can be a good source of support for people who experience depression. However, the support of an ESA is usually in the form of companionship rather than helping with specific tasks.3

Therapy animal

Therapy animals are often brought into settings such as hospitals or nursing homes to provide comfort and companionship. These types of animals are handled by professionals and trained to perform a specific type of therapy.3

How can you get a service dog for depression?

In order to get a service dog, you will need a letter from your healthcare provider. This letter must say that you are being treated for an emotional or psychiatric disorder or disability and that you could benefit from assistance from an animal.3

Getting a service dog is not easy. Dogs must be trained to treat your specific condition. This can often take a few years to do. Most people get a service dog from someone who has already trained the dog instead of trying to train a dog themselves.3

However, if you want to get an ESA or register your current pet as your ESA, you have to get a letter from a mental health professional. This letter must say that you have a mental health condition and your pet helps you cope with this condition.3

What can a service dog help you with?

Service dogs can be useful in many ways for people with depression. Service dogs are trained to sense changes in your mood. If you are about to experience negative symptoms, such as an anxiety attack, they will be able to sense that and provide support.5

Service dogs can also help someone with depression take better care of themselves. If you have a service dog, you are responsible for its care. That means you have to take the animal outside, go on walks, and make sure it is fed and healthy. Doing these things can help keep you active and help you get outside more often.5

For example, a service dog may be trained to bring your medication to you if your depression symptoms are preventing you from being able to get the medicine on your own. Service dogs can also help to calm symptoms of anxiety by providing companionship to their human.1,3

If you ever find yourself in an emergency situation, service dogs can bring over a phone or get someone to help you.1,3

Things to consider before you get a service animal

Just like any other kind of pet, you want to make sure that you are able to care for a service animal. Having a service animal comes with physical, mental, and financial responsibilities. If you are unsure if you can take on the responsibility of a service animal, try starting with something that is lower-maintenance like a fish or a plant, and work your way up to a dog.3

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