Yes, cats can be emotional support animals (ESAs). An emotional support cat can comfort someone with anxiety, depression or other mental health issues.
It’s important to note, however, that ESAs are different from service animals. This means they don’t have the same protections by law. That doesn’t negate the benefits they can provide their owners, though.
Benefits of Emotional Support Cats on Mental Health
Emotional support cats (and other ESAs) offer a variety of benefits for their owners’ mental health. Studies have shown cats reduce stress and blood pressure levels in their owners.
Additionally, research shows ESAs can lower anxiety, reduce depression, decrease feelings of loneliness, and may even offer benefits to those with PTSD.
Lack of sleep can also impact mental health. One survey, however, found some people slept better when they slept with their pets.
Emotional Support Cats vs. Therapy Cats vs. Service Animals
There are several different types of “support” animals. Understanding the difference can help you determine which will best serve your needs. Different support animals have different protections as well, which you’ll need to know if you plan to take your emotional support cat with you when traveling or under other circumstances.
Emotional Support Cats
Emotional support animals are protected under the Fair Housing Act from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). This means emotional support cats can live with their owners, regardless of a landlord’s or building manager’s pet policies.
In fact, HUD specifically says, “Emotional support animals, by their very nature, and without training, may relieve depression and anxiety, and/or help reduce stress-induced pain in persons with certain medical conditions and affected by stress.”
Although ESAs are protected by HUD, as of December 2020, they are no longer allowed on airplanes. This means if you need to travel with your emotional support cat, you’ll need to make other accommodations for her, such as using a pet carrier.
Therapy cats (and other therapy animals) are different from ESAs in that they are trained and handled by their owners and are part of an individual’s treatment process.
Therapy cats may visit hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation facilities and more with their owners to provide comfort and support to patients and residents. Mental health professionals may also use therapy animals in their offices to help clients feel more at ease during sessions.
Although some cats may alert their owners to medical emergencies, dogs are the only animals that can be designated as “service animals.”
In the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the U.S. Department of Justice defines service animals as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.”
Service animals can accompany the person they assist into spaces that do not typically allow pets, such as grocery stores, restaurants, hospitals and more.
Emotional support cats can provide numerous benefits to their owners. If you think you might benefit from an ESA, it’s important to speak with your physician or mental health professional to determine what animal would provide you with the greatest benefits based on your current mental and physical health.
For more on the benefits of cat ownership, visit our Pet Expertise page.