We all know that pets become part of the family when they enter our homes, but beyond simply being a loving pet, animals can also serve as therapeutic tools for children struggling with emotional issues like anxiety and depression. Such pets are referred to as emotional support animals (ESAs). An ESA can be a dog, cat or other type of pet that helps ease symptoms of an emotional or mental issue through companionship and affection. Also called assistance animals, ESAs have improved the lives of so many people.
Some children have trouble connecting with adults and their peers, which is where an ESA can be beneficial. They may find it easier to bond with an animal through non-verbal communication. One of the things we all love about pets is that they are supportive and non-judgmental, providing a safe space for children to express themselves. ESAs are more than just pets to these children; the bond between them can be quite powerful.
Getting a pet is a family decision, especially if the pet is for younger children. Pets have different levels of maintenance and expense to consider. It’s important to get a pet that fits your family’s lifestyle and commitment level. Here are some of the best types of ESA available for your children:
Emotional Support Dogs
Dogs are the most popular ESA choice since they so naturally bond with humans. Dogs are typically energetic and enjoy lots of playtime with their companions. Both small and large dog breeds work well with children, but some breeds are known for being the best emotional support dogs and are more kid-friendly than others. These include the Cavalier King Charles spaniel, labrador retriever, bichon frisé, shih tzu, boxer, poodle and beagle. If you are looking for a rescue ESA dog, head to your local shelter to find dogs of all breeds, ages and sizes that need a loving home.
Emotional Support Cats
Cats are also a terrific choice for an ESA, especially for children who are intimidated by or afraid of dogs and the possibility of getting bitten. Cats are low-maintenance animals and are often tender with children. They are smaller than dogs, lighter and usually enjoy sitting on laps. Additionally, they are more independent, tolerant of being left alone and easily transportable. Cats can be an antidote to loneliness for many kids and can help them cope more effectively with everyday life. There are no specific cat breeds known to be better for emotional support; it just depends on which cat can provide comfort to those struggling with a mental or emotional issue.
Birds can also serve as pacifying companions. Parrots, in particular, are known to have a high level of empathy and provide a special type of interaction with those struggling with emotional issues. They can be taught words and phrases, which can help in therapeutic ways. Plus, many people are fascinated by their behavior and beautiful colors and enjoy interacting with animals that can fly. Be aware that parrots can often live 50 years or more, so choosing to own one is a big commitment.
Another group of ESAs, called “smallies,” include tiny animals like rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, mini pigs (also called pot-bellied pigs) and even rats. When used in therapeutic ways, these animals can help lower stress and anxiety in children. They work well for people who find larger animals intimidating.
Rabbits come in a range of sizes up to about 15 pounds. They are curious animals that enjoy socializing and can build bonds with humans. Hamsters are easy to care for, inexpensive, simple to transport and calm. Guinea pigs are small enough to hold, are social, inquisitive and love to be stroked. They can bond strongly with humans. What most people do not realize is that guinea pigs are frequently vocal, whistling and purring when they are happy. Mini pigs are highly intelligent and easily trained and can be very affectionate. The most shocking of this group, of course, are the rats. Despite the obvious stigma against them, rats can be effective ESAs since they are very social creatures with high intelligence that enjoy interacting with people in a gentle way.
Reptiles and Amphibians
Finally, as surprising as it may sound, some types of reptiles and amphibians are now being used for therapy purposes. Caring for a lizard, frog or turtle means creating a delicate habitat, and building that habitat can be a distraction and reprieve from emotional struggles. An advantage of choosing this type of ESA is that they require less daily care than mammals.
If you are interested in getting an ESA for your child or registering one of your own pets as an ESA, check out ESA Registration of America for guidance. www.esaregistration.org.
If you would like to find animal support programs in your community, contact organizations like Pet Partners, the American Kennel Club and the Alliance of Therapy Dogs.
Sandi Schwartz is an award-winning environmental author and freelance journalist.