How Does an Emotional Support Animal Help You Feel Better?

(By Emily Cline of

There’s no denying that the popularity of emotional support animals or ESAs is growing day by day. At the same time some of the stigma around mental health issues is being broken down, and we’re more open than ever before to discuss our struggles.

As mental health stigma changes, ESAs have taken off, but how they actually help is not well known. The human-animal connection has all sorts of amazing and somewhat surprising effects on the human brain.

Our brains rely on many factors working together in harmony to make us feel settled, in a neutral state. Other times due to a sudden dip or rise in chemical reactions the brain can suffer an imbalance that can cause depression, mania or anxiety to take hold.  

These constant changes in the levels of different substances in our brain is totally natural, but it’s when they get out of balance that it can cause problems.

The Chemical Keys to Happiness

There are some major chemical components that are important in the brain to achieve happiness. These ‘feel good’ chemicals are called oxytocin, endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine. When we do things to stimulate these chemicals in the brain, we feel a range of positive emotions, such as euphoria, less pain, pleasure, contentment and of course, happiness.

This is Your Brain on Pets

Interacting with animals can help to stimulate the brain in a number of ways. Scientists have found that patting, touching and interacting with pets, (or your ESA dog or cat) brings on a measured increase of oxytocin in the brain, which is one of the key happiness chemicals. Oxytocin is sometimes referred to as the ‘love’ chemical, as it can create deep feelings of bonding and connection. This is the chemical that our brains release when we start falling in love with someone, and also helps bond new parents and their baby. Pretty powerful stuff!

A 2014 study showed that pet owners measured a 6.6 percent spike in the oxytocin level in their brain when they interacted with pets. Another neurochemical which dogs, in particular, can contribute to raising are endorphins. With their need to exercise, dogs force their owners to get up and move, which contributes to producing endorphins in the brain. Endorphins are known as the ‘pleasure’ chemical in the brain, and the more exercise we do, the more uplifted we feel.

Other Ways Pets Can Be an Awesome Emotional Support

Aside from studies showing clinical increases in the “happy” chemicals in the brain, therapy pets are also being used more and more in other settings to help patients recover, like in the ICU. Therapy dogs are used to give recovering patients motivation to get better, by having them focus on the task of looking after the animal. Looking after a pet or an ESA can give reason and purpose to life for those that may have temporarily lost it for themselves.

ESA’s also exude a stabilizing emotional presence. For those that find their emotional state volatile and hard to regulate, the stability and consistency of a pet can help them to feel more safe and secure. This can also be attributed to the routine that pets require in order to be happy and healthy. By adhering to the schedule of their pet, ESA owners often feel more grounded an in control of their own lives. In short; pets depend on their owners, but owners depend heavily on their pets.

Pets can be a huge and important part of our lives – and for good reason! They can actually help to support our emotional and mental health just by being there to hang out with us, cuddle us whenever we want and to get us moving.

Having an emotional support animal is an amazing way to commit to your self-care and keep your brain happy, plus you get an awesome furry friend to hang out with. That’s a total win-win!