The 10 Best Emotional Support Animals

Written by Emily Wolfel
Updated: September 13, 2022
Image Credit Lucia Romero/Shutterstock.com
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Key Points

  • Emotional support animals provide comfort and stress relief to people suffering from mental health issues.
  • Dogs are the most common type of emotional support animal because they are good at gauging human emotion and take well to special training.
  • However, many other types of animals also make great emotional support partners–especially for people who are allergic to or afraid of dogs.

For people suffering from mental health issues, emotional support animals are a great way to provide treatment and coping mechanisms. Sometimes this emotional support is necessary just to help people function normally, especially for anxiety, for depression, and for learning disabilities. An emotional support or therapy animal is not quite the same thing as a service animal, which provides physical help to its owner. A therapy animal provides emotional support only.

In order to have your pet deemed legally admissible as an emotional support animal, it needs to be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional. But you don’t necessarily need to own a pet or a domesticated animal in order to derive some emotional benefit from an animal. Numerous farms and sanctuaries around the world allow you to interact with and touch therapy animals for a very modest fee. Many of these businesses make regular visits to hospitals, schools, and nursing homes to help children, the elderly, or sick people cope with difficult circumstances.

But remember, if you plan to have your pet classified as a therapy animal, you will need to follow all emotional support animal laws in your state or country. While you don’t necessarily need a special license to derive emotional benefits from your pet, therapy animals are subject to certain emotional support animal laws that may allow you to live or travel with them in specific ways. This article will cover some interesting facts about the top 10 types of emotional support animals. The ability to interact with and provide support for emotionally distressed people is obviously the most important criteria for any animal on this list. But for animals kept at home, ease of care is a factor as well.

#10: Llamas and Alpacas

Emotional Support Animals
Llama (Lama glama) near the Laguna Colorada, Bolivia. Llama owners will tell you that their pets have a sixth sense about people who are needy, ill or frail. 

Llamas and alpacas (two domesticated hoofed animals from South America) may not be the most obvious pick for this list, but they actually make for excellent support animals. As long as they’re raised around people, they are naturally gentle, friendly, and empathetic, and their exceptionally soft coat is also a real joy to touch. They obviously need plenty of outdoor space to thrive in, but there are numerous llama and therapy farms around the world that provide an emotional support service. While either animal is capable of easing emotional distress, the alpaca is generally smaller and more approachable. The llama can be intimidating for some people.

You can read more about llamas here and alpacas here.

#9: Sheep and Goats

Emotional Support Animals
Brown white spotted dwarf goat standing in a field. Taking care of an animal like a goat releases feel good chemicals in the brain, decreasing anxiety and depression symptoms.

Domestic sheep and goats have many surprising qualities that make them a good choice for a therapy animal. First, they are used to being handled by people (the sheep’s soft, wooly coat is especially a joy to touch and pet). Second, they’re surprisingly social and intelligent animals that can be trained to perform different tasks. One of the most surprising facts from research is that they can apparently recognize individual human faces and read emotional states. Third, they’re generally quite calm and gentle around people. They will even eat right out of a person’s hand.

Pygmy goats, Nigerian dwarf goats, Nubian dwarf goats, and mini Alpine goats are some of the best goat breeds to interact with. They are known for being naturally curious and inquisitive animals. A Shetland or Cheviot sheep works great as well. However, because of the difficulty associated with caring for this animal, goats and sheep don’t really make good pets unless you have a lot of outdoor space and plenty of patience. They can be quite destructive with property and require large amounts of food. They also require regular interactions with other members of the species to be content and happy. But they are a very good animal to interact with at a farm or sanctuary that specializes in emotional support. Some local businesses even offer yoga programs in which you can relax and stretch with goats.

You can read more about sheep here and goats here.

#8: Chickens

Emotional Support Animals
While it may come as a surprise to some, chickens offer significant therapeutic benefits for people of all ages and are proving a powerful therapeutic tool for those suffering from anxiety, depression, isolation, loneliness and dementia.

iStock.com/Andrey Babeshkin

Chickens may not seem like the most obvious choice for an emotional support animal, but as long as they’re trained and socialized from an early age to accept human contact, there are many great qualities about them. They’re quite affectionate toward people, they have individual personalities, and they can even be trained to perform tricks. If you have enough space for them to roam around in, they’re fairly low-maintenance pets that get along well on their own without much human care. Otherwise, if you don’t own chickens, then you would have to visit a farm to get some emotional benefits from this animal. Some of the most social chicken breeds include silkies, Cochins, barred Plymouth rocks, and Australorps. These breeds are generally calm, friendly, and great for beginners.

You can read more about chickens here.

#7: Pigs and Miniature Pigs

Emotional Support Animals
Pigs have been recognized by families of children with autism to help with vocalization and calming.

iStock.com/Appfind

Research shows that pigs are among the most social and intelligent animals on the planet. They crave attention, they form strong bonds with people, and they’re quite hypoallergenic and clean. One of the most amazing facts about them is that pigs have very strong communication skills: barking, squealing, and laughter are all part of their large verbal repertoire. Pigs come in all kinds of shapes, sizes, and colors, but the kunekune, the Vietnamese pot-bellied pig, and some types of miniature pigs make for the best pets and support pigs.

You can read more about pigs here.

#6: Parrots

Emotional Support Animals
Congo African Grey parrot sitting on a branch. By the trained use of certain phrases that can soothe an increasingly agitated individual, an ESA parrot can provide an emotional assistance that can be most helpful.

Clad in all kinds of bright and extravagant colors, parrots are great pets and support animals for people with all kinds of mental health issues. Their ability to mimic human speech makes them a real joy to interact with, and there is some evidence that they can respond to the emotional states of their owners. They are great animals for people with anxiety and for learning disabilities. African grey parrots, budgies, and cockatiels are great choices for the novice or casual owners, while macaws and cockatoos might be better for parrot enthusiasts and experts.

You can read more about parrots here.

#5: Miniature Horses and Ponies

Emotional Support Animals
Training means that miniature horses can remain calm in even the most stressful of situations, which is an invaluable quality in an emotional support animal.

Both miniature horses and ponies are specifically bred for their small and approachable size. However, they do vary in small but subtle ways. The main difference comes down to their proportions: ponies tend to have a compact body with short legs, thick shoulders, and particularly dense tail, while the miniature horse (which measures less than 38 inches at the shoulders) has similar proportions to a regular-sized horse.

Both miniature horses and ponies are often raised on therapy farms to provide emotional support for learning disabilities, terminal or critical illnesses, and trauma. They are also good at treatment for anxiety and for depression. Their calm demeanor and love for people make them well-suited for being hugged, petted, and otherwise handled.

You can read more about horses here.

#4: Guinea Pigs (and Other Rodents)

Emotional Support Animals
Guinea pigs are the perfect friend for any child who cannot have the traditional dog or cat for emotional support.

iStock.com/Galyna0404

Guinea pigs have enjoyed special status as pets, companions, and cultural and religious symbols for thousands of years. Following the fall of the Incan Empire, they became very popular pets in European societies. Guinea pigs have many excellent qualities, including their small size, their gentle behavior, and their high level of interactivity. When overly excited, guinea pigs will do a jumping and twisting maneuver called popcorning. As long as they’re socialized early, they tolerate being picked up and handled without biting or scratching.

Guinea pigs are social creatures who live in large communities in the wild. If you plan to get a guinea pig as an emotional support animal, then it’s recommended that you have at least two of them at the same time to keep each other company. Guinea pigs also don’t need to be together from birth to live in the same enclosure. As long as they are safely introduced, most cavies cohabit without any issues. Other excellent rodent alternatives to guinea pigs include a mouse, hamster, or gerbil.

You can read more about guinea pigs here.

#3: Rabbits

Emotional Support Animals
Pets such as rabbits can be a great source of comfort, companionship and motivation for their owners.

Rita_Kochmarjova/Shutterstock.com

Cute, cuddly, curious, playful, and very quick to bond with people, domestic rabbits make excellent emotional support animals both for anxiety and depression. They have some of the softest fur of any domesticated animal in the world, and most rabbits are used to being handled or picked up by people. If you don’t want to bother with all the housing and care yourself, then you can still visit a farm or sanctuary to get some emotional support from this animal.

You can read more about rabbits here.

#2: Cats

Emotional Support Animals
The Exotic Shorthair cat breed is a favorite family pet, especially for children and senior citizens. Its sweet and loving personality makes it a perfect emotional support animal. 

Ewa Studio/Shutterstock.com

Pet owners can already attest to the fact that a cat can be a calm and soothing presence, especially for people suffering from loneliness and anxiety. Whether curled up and purring on your lap or playing with a toy, they are loving, compassionate, and endlessly surprising pets, relatively easy to care for around the home. They should also qualify easily for a license under emotional support animal laws. Some of the best types of cat breeds for emotional support include the Sphynx, Russian Blue, Abyssinian, Manx, Siamese, Bengal, American Bobtail, and Exotic Shorthair. Allergy sufferers should choose a hypoallergenic breed that won’t trigger their allergies.

You can read more about cats here.

#1: Dogs

Emotional Support Animals
A Maltese dog is small and compact enough, so people who are dealing with emotional or psychiatric conditions can bring the dog along for support – it loves to be cuddled, and thrives on human attention.

Dora Zett/Shutterstock.com

As man’s best friend, dogs make ideal support animals for all kinds of obvious reasons. Friendly and trainable, they have evolved to read human emotions and respond accordingly to our needs and desires. Some types of dog breeds are better emotional support animals than others. Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Corgis, Poodles, Maltese, Havanese, Great Danes, and the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel all rank highly for their natural affection toward people, whether familiar faces or strangers. However, most dog breeds could conceivably work as emotional support animals as long as you’re bonded strong enough with it. If you suffer from allergies, then it’s a good idea to choose from one of the hypoallergenic dog breeds.

You can read more about dog breeds here.

Best Emotional Support Animal Summary

Here is a summary of the best emotional support animals, listed by rank below.

RankAnimalConsiderations
1DogsMost common type of emotional support animal.
2CatsMost cats are independent–good for people who may have to be away.
3RabbitsUsually very gentle and sweet. Can sometimes be litter trained, but not always.
4Guinea PigsGood for people in apartments/limited yard space. Must have at least two.
5Miniature Horses and PoniesRequire a sizable amount of yard space, care, and upkeep.
6ParrotsSmart and usually very gentle. Good for people in apartments/limited yard space.
7Pigs and Miniature PigsGood for people with allergies. Can be high energy.
8ChickensRequire a sizable amount of yard space.
9Sheep and GoatsRequire a sizable amount of yard space, care, and upkeep.
10Llamas and AlpacasRequire a sizable amount of yard space, care, and upkeep. Have an average lifespan of 20 years.

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About the Author

Emily is an editor and content marketing specialist of five years. She grew up in rural Pennsylvania where you can regularly encounter anything from elk to black bears to river otters. Over the years, she raised livestock animals, small animals, dogs, cats, and birds, which is where she learned most of what she knows about various animals and what allowed her to work as a dog groomer and manager of a specialty pet store. She now has three rescue cats and two high-needs Pomeranian mixes to take up her love and attention.

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