An emotional support animal (ESA), also known as an assistance animal, is a pet that provides special companionship for its owner. Though ESAs aren’t expected to do special tasks the way a guide dog would, these specially designated animals perform a vital function for their owners. This function is so vital that ESAs can enjoy certain legal protections when they’re properly certified by a qualified medical professional. If your emotional support dog makes your life significantly easier by allowing you to live in a more normal way in spite of emotional limitations, ESA status may be the right step for you. Learn more about what ESAs are and how you can get legal protection through an ESA letter with this complete guide.
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In Brief: What is an Emotional Support Animal and Why Do I Need a Letter?
Do you have a medical condition that has had a significantly negative impact on your life? Are you finding your life limited by mental health, fear, anxiety, sadness, or other emotional states you cannot control? If so, you aren’t alone. Millions of people around the world experience the same conditions, and there are a variety of underlying causes that can make negative emotions an unbearable factor in everyday life.
If this sounds like you or someone you know, there are a variety of treatment options available. Talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, medication, and other treatments may all be effective. However, emotional, behavioral, and psychiatric medical problems aren’t always easy to diagnose by mental health professionals and that means treatment is more complicated and usually takes much longer than it does for something simple and physical, like post-traumatic stress, a broken bone or even a chronic disease like diabetes. Emotional support animal prescriptions are one way to alleviate the symptoms associated with these issues and help patients live normal lives while they’re on their road to healing.
Like all prescriptions, ESA prescriptions must be administered by a qualified medical professional. This means that a licensed psychiatrist, medical doctor, or psychologist must write you a letter in order for you to elevate your relationship with your emotional support dog from normal ownership to ESA status. Once you have your ESA letter, you have legal proof that you qualify for the protections offered to both humans and animals by laws such as the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) and the Fair Housing Act (FHA). Air travel and housing are the two primary areas in which ESAs enjoy benefits. They cannot simply walk into any business with you—only service animals can do that, and even they are subject to some restrictions.
There’s more to it than just that. Not just anyone can get an ESA letter and, in some cases, ESA status may not be enough to give you the legal protection you need. Keep reading to find out whether ESA protection is right for you and whether you’ll qualify for an emotional support animal certification.
The Difference between an Emotional Support Dog and a Service Dog
In the most general terms, an ESA is a therapy pet who alleviates discomfort and helps people with certain emotional or behavioral problems live a more normal life. This is a radically different status from that of a service dog and it’s important to understand the difference between the two to avoid confusion once you receive your ESA letter.
Emotional support animal basics:
- ESAs provide emotional support through their presence alone. These animals are pets that play a special part in their owners’ lives, but they may not even realize how important they are. They don’t have a job to do other than simply existing, so they don’t need any special training.
- Just about any animal can qualify as an ESA. Dogs are the most popular, but cats, rabbits, birds, reptiles, ferrets and other pets can qualify. If you can prove that your pet has a positive impact on your day-to-day life in a way that mitigates your emotional limitations, the animal may qualify as an ESA.
- We’ll cover this in more detail later in the article, but ESAs enjoy protection from a few major laws in the United States of America, including those governing housing, airline travel, and educational access.
- Though they don’t need to perform a specific job, ESAs do need to be well behaved in public. They cannot bite or otherwise act aggressively. They must be potty trained. When this isn’t possible, the human handler must take responsibility for their pet’s waste. Your ESA can’t just use the bathroom wherever they please. Accidents do happen, but you’ll need to clean it up when they do. Businesses and other facilities are not required to accommodate any animal, including an ESA, if it poses a threat to the health and safety of the other people in the space, including both customers and employees.
- There are many places where ESAs are not specifically allowed by law. Businesses, for example, are not required to accommodate ESAs. If you try to take your ESA into a grocery store and are asked to leave, for example, you likely will not enjoy legal protection the way a person with a service dog would. Specific local laws may vary, but there are no federal laws that require businesses to accommodate ESAs in areas other than housing or airline travel.
- Businesses may set their own policies on ESAs. In general, if your animal is quiet, well-behaved, unobtrusive, and clearly under your control without causing a problem for other people in the same space, you will have more leeway to move around in public with your pet even in situations not covered by your ESA letter.
It’s important to note, too, that public scrutiny of the ESA program is beginning to rise. This could put the entire premise of legal protection for emotional support animals in jeopardy. The people who apply for ESA status should think about this carefully before proceeding. If you can’t control your pet, the animal should not be an ESA. Dogs that growl at any approaching stranger, cats who spray urine in random places, birds that frequently make loud screeching noises and other animals who may draw undue attention or otherwise cause a public disturbance are may not be good candidates for this program. ESA status is not carte blanche to justify any kind of behavior from either you or your pet.
However, as you’ll see below, some ESA protection applies to your life at home and that can be important regardless of how your pet behaves in public. A dog who doesn’t like strangers can still do its job for you at home and provide the kind of support you need on a day-to-day basis within your home and even outside for brief walks, but likely isn’t the kind of ESA you’d want to take on an airplane. Approaching this issue with care will save you headaches in the long run.
Service dog handlers don’t need to think quite so carefully because can go more places than ESAs can. However, they must also be well behaved—they can’t just bark up a storm in a movie theater. In fact, service dogs are generally held to a higher behavioral standard because they and their handlers have more rights.
Service dog basics:
- Service dogs are individually trained to perform a specific helping function for their handlers. This doesn’t just mean fetching the paper or getting you out of bed to take the dog for a walk every day. A service dog must perform a specially trained task that relates to their handler’s formally diagnosed disability or illness.
- In most cases, service dogs are expected to act as professionals in a public setting. This goes further than the expectations of most emotional support animals. Technically speaking, service dogs are not pets. Because service dogs are theoretically always on the clock, they need to act like it. A service dog usually puts their personality, interests, and needs second to the needs of their human handlers. A guide dog for a visually impaired person, for example, cannot properly do its job if the sound of a squeaky toy is irresistibly distracting.
- With a few rare exceptions, dogs are the only animals that can qualify as service animals. Miniature horses may also qualify for some legal protections, but this is not common.
- As with ESAs, a service dog cannot pose a threat to the health and safety of the people around it. Service dogs can be removed from a business or other facility if they growl at people or cause a risk to sanitation through a lack of proper bathroom behavior. If a service dog is removed for these reasons, the handler may still use the facilities in the absence of the out-of-control animal.
- In general, a service dog is allowed to accompany its handler in a public place. Religious buildings are the notable exception to this rule—mosques, temples, synagogues, and churches are not required to allow service animals according to federal law.
The distinction between a service dog and an ESA is important for human handlers to understand. Guide dogs and other service dogs have a lot more leeway in public places, but that doesn’t mean they won’t draw suspicion if they’re poorly behaved. However, in both cases, your privacy is strongly protected by law. Store managers and other public or private authority figures don’t have the right to know your private medical status and that means the rules around proving ESA or service dog status can be a bit unclear. The rules for proof of status are slightly different for service dogs, but ESAs owners don’t need to worry about that. Just remember this: you are not legally required to register your ESA with any sort of registry. Your pet doesn’t have to wear a special vest, patch, or harness announcing its ESA status. There is no formal legal licensure or certification required for an emotional support animal, either—the ESA letter is the only proof you need.
Who Can Qualify For an Emotional Support Animal?
As the name indicates, emotional support animals are supposed to help their owners cope with maladaptive or life-limiting behaviors and psychiatric problems. There isn’t a set list of problems that ESAs are allowed or qualified to alleviate but, in general, the person seeking the ESA letter must be able to prove that their everyday quality of life is impacted by their health problems. In the case of air travel, you need to be able to describe the ways in which your fears or other negative emotional responses prevent you from living a normal, healthy life. This could include anything from being able to seek jobs that require regular travel to not being able to visit family in a different state.
There’s a lot of flexibility in this regard. As long as you can accurately and honestly describe the ways in which your emotions limit your regular life activities, you meet the basic criteria for qualification. The emotional issues in question may result from a serious underlying cause, such as a terminal cancer diagnosis or they may simply manifest on their own as standalone psychiatric disorders. No matter what the cause is, these patients may be able to qualify for ESA certification for their pets.
Here are just a few examples of specific illnesses, disorders, and issues that are often associated with ESAs:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Bipolar disorder
- Personality disorders
- Generalized anxiety, social anxiety, and agoraphobia
- Eating disorders
There are many different people who may experience these conditions and benefit from the presence of an emotional support animal in their lives. Examples include combat veterans who suffer from PTSD but do not have any physical disabilities resulting from injuries or accidents. People suffering from PTSD brought on by other types of trauma can also benefit from the life-improving company of an ESA.
Other examples may include people who have become so afraid of having a panic attack in public that they rarely leave their homes. People with major depression who find that their pets help interrupt negative thought spirals or those with eating disorders who can avoid triggers by focusing on their pet are also good examples.
Remember that these examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Patients don’t need to have undergone a major trauma or have serious panic disorders to qualify as ESA candidates, though, so don’t be too critical or too hard on yourself if you think your situation isn’t serious enough. You simply need to be able to prove to a doctor or therapist that your ability to perform everyday tasks or experience your normal lifestyle is limited by your mental state. Anxiety, depression, and other psychiatric illnesses aren’t necessarily rational. The qualified medical professionals who prescribe emotional support animals and provide prescription letters understand that everyone’s situation is different and that our life-limiting emotional problems can’t be easily explained away.
Who Might Need a Service Animal Instead?
While people living with a variety of different medical conditions can benefit from the extra emotional support of a certified ESA, some people really need more help than that. Service dogs can provide that help by physically doing jobs that their handlers cannot do. Conditions commonly associated with service dogs include:
- Visual or hearing impairment
- Physical disability or handicap such as paralysis
- Developmental disorders such as autism
- Seizure disorders
- Psychiatric illness such as panic disorders or depression
Note that this last category may seem at first to be similar to that of an ESA. The two are very different, though. A psychiatric service dog requires special training, while an ESA does not. There are specific legal distinctions that govern what a psychiatric service dog must be able to do. Simply training your pet to snuggle up to you when you’re upset isn’t enough because that’s something many animals do without much prompting at all. You’d have to train your dog to do something like persistently lick your face as a stimulus disruption when you start having a panic attack in order to qualify for service dog status. If you don’t think your dog would be able to learn how to do this consistently or you have other methods of coping and simply like having a pet in your life to make the minor, day-to-day issues you face more tolerable, the ESA letter is a good route.
Remember: both types of animal may deal with individuals who have psychiatric illnesses like PTSD or depression. However, the way they relate to their human handlers is much different. For example, if your depression makes it hard to get out of bed in the morning but you do it anyway because your dog will nudge you until you take her for a walk, that’s not service dog behavior. Any dog will likely do this without special training. A service dog, on the other hand, could help a depressed person by alerting family members in the house when the handler appears to be engaging in self-harm.
In this scenario, the service dog is specially trained both to recognize specific behaviors and to respond in a predictable, consistent, and predetermined way. In this way, a guide dog goes above and beyond simply “being there” for their owner. This is an important distinction to note: emotional support animals might nudge and cuddle up to you if you are crying, but they aren’t specifically trained to behave in a certain way in response to your distress.
Legal Protections: Which Laws Apply to Which Animals?
There are three main federal laws that govern the use of animals to comfort or assist disabled people. As far as the law is concerned, the term “disabled” has widespread usage and doesn’t just refer to a physical handicap of some sort. Disabilities can be difficult or impossible for casual bystanders to notice. Depression, for example, may not be immediately apparent to a random stranger on the street, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t cause a major quality of life problems for the person who lives with it.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA):
The ADA is the major law that governs the rights disabled people in the USA. This law codifies the rules and regulations surrounding service dogs and horses but not emotional support animals. If you have an ESA, you do not have protection from the ADA. Do not look to this law for guidance in what you are and are not allowed to do if you have an ESA letter for a pet. You can look into the ADA if you think you might benefit from training your dog to perform service animal tasks, though.
The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA):
The ACAA is the law that governs the way disabled people are treated with respect to air travel. This law covers everything from wheelchair accessibility to assistance for those who require visual or physical help on airplanes. Emotional support animals and service dogs are also covered in the ACAA. According to this law, commercial airlines must accommodate animals that meet the requirements for ESA status. This means you may need to travel with your ESA letter in order to cut through resistance in airport security or with the airline.
If you want to know what your rights and responsibilities are when you travel with a pet on a commercial airline, you should explore the ACAA. Knowing your rights and being able to point to specific passages from this law can make a huge difference in the way you experience air travel with your ESA. Even if you don’t get any pushback from airline employees, it can make the process of air travel a lot less stressful to be fully informed of your rights. Because many people bring ESAs on airplanes due to emotional reactions including stress or fear, being prepared can help make the experience ultimately smooth and even enjoyable for affected passengers.
The Fair Housing Act (FHA):
The FHA is a law that covers a wide range of rights and responsibilities relating to equal protection for all people under the law. This is the law that makes it illegal for landlords and other people to discriminate against prospective tenants or homebuyers based on uncontrollable factors such as their race or disability status. ESAs are also covered under this law. This is the law that makes it illegal for a prospective landlord to do the following to tenants with valid ESA letters:
- Deny housing based on the presence of a pet or service animal (i.e. you may apply for housing in “no pets” buildings and cannot be denied housing based on the fact that you have an animal)
- Charge a pet deposit or pet rent to ESAs or service dogs
- Harass or impose special rules for tenants with ESAs or service dogs
In other words, if you have an ESA letter, your pet can live with you even if your landlord ordinarily does not allow pets in the building. Your landlord can’t discriminate against you as an applicant just because you have a pet, so long as your ESA letter is current and applies to the pets you want to live with. Buildings and landlords with policies regarding pet rent or pet damage deposits must waive these requirements for tenants with valid ESA letters.
Note, though, that the fact that an ESA letter isn’t carte blanche applies especially in apartments. You’ll need to make sure your pet’s bathroom activities are under your control. If you have a dog or other animal that goes to the bathroom outside, you’ll need to obey all rules and policies regarding waste disposal and acceptable locations where your pet can relieve itself. Your pet can’t destroy the apartment, either. Though you don’t need to pay rent or deposits up front, landlords do have some right to recoup financial losses from a tenant whose ESA pets caused indisputable damage to the property. So, as always, it’s important to approach your rights in this area responsibly. Keep your ESAs under your control and respect your landlord’s rights while he or she respects yours.
Other rights for ESAs:
There may be some laws issued by federal or local agencies that outline rights for emotional support animals not outlined in this section. The two main areas of ESA validity are air travel and housing, but education, access to federal buildings and access to businesses may also be covered in various rules and regulations. When in doubt, call ahead to a business or other venue to see if your ESA will be welcome. This is not legally required, but it can be a smart planning step to reduce potential stress, inconvenience and upset.
How to Gain Formal ESA Recognition for Your Pet
Now that you understand what an ESA is and what your rights are, it’s time to focus on how to make sure you consistently enjoy these rights and protections. An ESA letter is essentially a therapy pet certification but technically, it’s actually a healthcare professional’s prescription. The letter should be written on official letterhead that states the name, contact information, and applicable license numbers for the professional writing the letter. Your name, brief, and nonspecific information about your disability or illness, information about your pet and other specific information are also typically required.
Obtaining an ESA Letter
So, how do you get one of these letters? You need to have a doctor or therapist write one for you. If you do not already have an established relationship with such a healthcare practitioner or your practitioner has expressed that they don’t write these letters, you’re in luck. We can help.
You do not need to have a long treatment relationship with the professional who administers your ESA letter, but you do need to be willing to talk about your problems and describe the ways in which your ESA helps alleviate your symptoms. The professional interviewing you and issuing your letter may have additional questions as well. Though the questions may be personal, they shouldn’t be the same as what you might experience from a normal therapy session. When you apply for an ESA letter, the focus should be on your illness and your pet.
This process may feel a bit intrusive if you aren’t used to describing your illness with others, but it’s designed to ensure that the ESA designation is applied only in those cases in which it’s legally and medically valid. If this sounds intimidating, don’t worry. As mentioned above in our previous sections, the goal of the ESA certification program is to help people live better lives. You don’t need to have a major trauma or serious illness to qualify. If you experience panic attacks sometimes and use your pets as comfort during those episodes, you may qualify. If you have experienced depression throughout your life and find that taking your dog for a walk every day gives you the boost you need to fight the blues, this may count as well.
Your ESA letter is valid only for one year after it’s issued so you’ll need to reapply each year to stay current and continue enjoying the legal protections these documents provide. You may need to answer the same questions and might even talk to a different provider than the one who issued your letter in the first place. This is all a normal part of the process. The yearly review can also give you an opportunity to reflect on your health and decide whether additional treatment might be a good idea.
Caring for Your ESA
Most of the focus of this article so far has been on the needs of the human patient, but the pets themselves deserve some attention too. In keeping with the idea that an ESA letter isn’t a permission slip to have a poorly behaved animal run amok in public, consider taking the following steps to ensure you and your emotional support animal are good stewards of this important and helpful set of legal rights:
- If possible, train your pet to behave properly in public. We tend to think of pet training applying only to dogs, but cats, horses, birds and even some reptiles can be trained to behave themselves in public. Remember that you don’t need to train your pet to do anything special to help you with your illness, but good behavior doesn’t hurt. A dog who can “sit, stay” on command will behave better in public than one who does as they please. A well-behaved ESA is likely to achieve wider acceptance and less resistance, which will make your life much easier and allow you to enjoy your pet’s company in more places.
- Groom your ESA and keep them healthy. These pets aren’t quite on the level of professional expectation as a service animal, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have an important role to play in your life and in public. Just as a person with well-coiffed hair and clean clothes is taken more seriously in business situations, a clean animal with a healthy coat will appear more official as an ESA and less like an everyday pet. Looks do matter and while that can be unfortunate, it does mean that you can leverage this to your advantage in how your ESA is perceived by others.
- Keep your ESA happy by playing with them and providing other stimulation as needed. This will depend heavily on the breed, but it can be vital for ensuring that your ESA behaves well and keeps life easy for you. For example, if you have an ESA dog, consider taking them to a dog park to get all excess energy out before flying on an airplane. If you have an ESA cat in your apartment, give them a scratching post and plenty of toys to avoid the temptation to turn the walls or carpet into a toy.
- Remember that caring for your pet can have benefits for you beyond ESA status. While a well-behaved and healthy animal will be taken more seriously in a public setting, looking after your pet can be part of the healing benefits you experience from their presence in your life. Just taking your dog for a walk or getting out of bed to feed your turtle every day can interrupt the mental processes that make your illness or emotional state worse. That’s why ESAs are so great. The act of caring for an animal reduces stress, makes us happy and helps us turn our focus away from our troubles. Treatment for mental illnesses and other underlying causes of emotional problems can take a long time, but your pet gives you benefits every single day. Pay your ESA back with proper care and you’ll experience a wonderful return on investment every day.