Service animals are a well-known part of society now. From seeing-eye dogs to PTSD partners, pets have given humanity a second chance at coping with day-to-day activities in order to achieve a sense of normalcy, despite whatever challenges life throws our way. These tasks are not easy to overcome alone, and having a companion who is completely devoted to its owner eases the struggles immensely. However, animals can serve many purposes outside the lines of physical disabilities. Emotional support animals are the answer to virtually any other issue we humans face, and allow us to not have to face them alone.  Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and countless other invisible monsters haunt a large majority of the population today (26.2% of the 18+ population according to the Kim Foundation), and many people are unaware of the positive impacts having pets such as dogs and cats can have on their mental illness. Pets can relieve stress, physically effect the body’s functions such as blood pressure, distract us from our own internal negativity, and provide a renewed sense of purpose in life.

But enough professional talk: when those little tails wag, it’s obvious how animals affect us. Our hearts grow three sizes, at least, any time a cute pupper comes up for a quick head rub and an affectionate lick or two. Even if it’s not your dog, you can’t help but fall in love with those pouty eyes! (Really though, looking into the eyes of an animal is like peering directly into the center of the universe. They’re so pure.) The physical responsibility of having a pet sounds overwhelming, but once you get into a routine with your furry one, being a fur-parent comes naturally. Walking them, feeding them, and making regular vet trips pales in comparison to what they can offer you.

It’s important to be responsible when caring for our furry ones. Pet ownership can be an expensive task, but it’s a rewarding one. When owning an Emotional Support Animal (ESA), inconvenient fees for renting can be avoided. (Talk to your therapist about how to register; some renters accept simply a note from your doctor, so the registration fee could potentially be avoided as well.) As far as vet bills go, there is a certain sense of pride I feel knowing I am being responsible and taking care of them as they deserve, not furthering the overpopulation of animals, keeping them from harmful diseases, and making sure they are as happy and healthy as I am. If adoption is not an option, or if you’re on the fence about how effective an ESA will be for you, I strongly suggest volunteering at your local animal shelter/humane society. I volunteered at the Mercer County Animal Shelter for an entire summer. I was there more often than some of the employees, before I knew that ESA was even a thing. Doing the dirty work was humbling. Interacting with the “difficult” residents was heart-breaking, but the experience was over-all incredibly rewarding. I witnessed so many helpless animals finally finding their forever homes, and every day I left that building with a new view on life. I had the power to impact the lives of so many animals that couldn’t voice their desires.

Pets offer more than simply their presence: they offer their companionship, their friendship. Vice President and Studio Director of SMRI Productions, Skyler Burgess, and his tubby cat Hawkeye are a perfect example of this friendship. Hawkeye’s unique personality keeps Skyler on his toes: “His facial expressions, his attitude, when he’s playful, when he’s hungry – he expresses himself like a person.” Skyler adopted Hawkeye earlier this summer, but the two have created an inseparable bond in this short span of time. Skyler observes Hawkeye’s gratitude through his attention-seeking meows, love of belly rubs, and nearly constant purr. When Skyler struggles with bad days, Hawkeye swoops in like the hero he is, bringing a little sunshine into Skyler’s view. Even if he’s only sitting close by, Hawkeye radiates good, calming vibes for his two-legged companion. Cats make for great pets in general, being relatively low-maintenance fluffy balls of love. But sometimes, those of us who suffer from depression need a little extra push to get out of our funk and get active, go outside. This is why I believe dogs exist.

I adopted Meera, a registered ESA, on January 23, 2017, and my life has been full ever since. Raising this pup into the fine young lady she is today has been the most interesting journey I’ve ever set out on. Sure, she’s a little turd and occasionally drives me nuts, but she encourages me to do things I didn’t think I could do. She gave me a sense of independence. I take her running every chance I get because I know she loves to be on trails, sniffing every durn tree in a 5-mile radius, which in turn forces me to be more active. She cuddles like nobody’s business, which helps me not feel so lonely. She begs me to play every hour that I’m home, reminding me to not let the little issues of the day overwhelm me. She’s my best friend, and I strive to make her as proud to have me as I am to have her.

I know that she can’t consciously know what I’m doing or what I’m telling her when I talk to her like she’s a person. I can’t even really tell if she understands her commands or if she just guesses when I get out the treats. All I know is that I’ve had exactly two panic attacks since I’ve owned her, when last year I couldn’t keep track of the days I had so many. She makes me feel like a stronger member of society, and I know that sounds crazy but you can’t judge me until you try it. By no means am I claiming that I am cured of anxiety and depression; I still struggle daily. But struggling with Meera by my side beats the hell out of whatever my life was before.

Adopting a pet is a weighty decision, one that should not be taken lightly. Research benefits of Emotional Support Animals if the accounts above do not convince you. Talk to your therapist if you have one. Research the behaviors in different breeds of dogs or what to expect from the genders of cats. Think about it long and hard, but the most important advice I could give you is to volunteer. Humble yourself, give back, and possibly find your new best friend in the process. You won’t regret it.