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Sonoma Family Life Magazine

Pets with a Purpose

By Sandi Schwartz

Beyond simply being loving pets, animals can serve as therapeutic tools for children struggling with emotional issues, such as 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, through companionship and affection, helps ease symptoms of an emotional or mental issue. 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, as they can use nonverbal (or verbal, if they prefer) communication to connect with it. Pets are also supportive and nonjudgmental, providing a safe space for children to express themselves. ESAs are more than just pets to these children; the bond between child and animal can be quite powerful. Here are some of the types of ESAs available for your children.

Dutiful Dogs Dogs are the most popular ESA choice, as they can be great emotional support animals for children. They 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 more kid-friendly than others. These include the Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Labrador retriever, bichon frise, shih tzu, boxer, poodle, and beagle. 

Caring Cats Cats are also a terrific choice for an ESA, especially for children who are intimidated by or afraid of dogs. They are a low-maintenance animal and often tender with children. Cats are smaller and lighter than dogs and usually enjoy sitting on laps. Additionally, they are more independent, tolerant of being left alone, and easily transportable, for instance on airplanes. Cats can be an antidote to kids’ loneliness and just generally help children 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.

Beautiful Birds 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.

Sweet Small Pets Another group of ESAs, called “smallies,” include tiny animals, such as rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, mini pigs (also called pot-bellied pigs), and even rats. When used in therapeutic ways, they can help lower stress and anxiety in children. Easy pets to have around, they work especially 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 and love to be stroked. They are social, inquisitive, and 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, easily trained, and can be very affectionate. The most shocking of this group, of course, are the rats. Despite the obvious stigma against them, they can actually be effective ESAs since they are very intelligent and social creatures that enjoy interacting with people in a gentle way.

Chill 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 takes a great deal of concentration and offers individuals a reprieve from their emotional struggles. An advantage of choosing this type of ESA is that they require less care than mammals. For instance, they do not need to be walked or groomed.

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. If you would like to find animal support programs in your community, contact organizations like Pet Partners (, American Kennel Club (, and Alliance of Therapy Dogs ( 

Learn more about Sandi Schwartz at