Introducing the Emotional Support Animal

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We’ve all heard the one about the emotional support peacock, right? But how many of us actually know what an emotional support animal is, what they do, and who qualifies for one? If you feel like you’ve got some brushing up to do, you’ve come to the right place.

Fluffly, Friendly and Loving: Emotional Support Animals Are Knights in Furry Armour

The definition of an emotional support animal (often called an ESA for short) is pretty simple really. These furry pals help people with mental illnesses or psychological conditions to feel better. They don’t need any special training to do this: just a strong bond with their owner and the ability to behave well in public.

In theory, any domesticated animal can be an ESA (so no peacocks, sorry!). In reality, dogs, cats, and less often rabbits are the most common types of ESA. Not only are these species the easiest to train, but they are also more commonly allowed into public places. We’ll go into more detail about where ESAs are and aren’t permitted below.

Service Animals and ESAs Both Help People, But They’re Not the Same Thing!

So we’ve established that emotional support animals don’t need special training, other than basic obedience, and this is the main difference between them and service animals. Service animals, (like guide dogs or seizure detection dogs), must have specific and specialist training to perform a task to help their owners with a disability. What’s more, service animals can only be dogs, no other species.

How to Get an Emotional Support Animal… And What to Watch Out for

Getting an emotional support animal needn’t be a difficult or expensive process; however, there is a specific way to go about it, and certain criteria that you have to fill. Let’s take a look at what to do.

The Only Way to Get an ESA is Through a Licensed Mental Health Professional or Medical Doctor!

As the title above suggests, if you want to get an ESA, you must get one through a licensed mental health professional or a medical doctor. Any website that offers to sell you an ESA letter without asking any questions, or to “register” or “certify” your pet as an ESA is a scam!

If you’re already receiving treatment from a doctor or LMHP, you can simply request that they prescribe you an ESA. If not, there are websites available that can help to connect you with a licensed mental health professional in your area, who will have a consultation with you before prescribing an ESA. Some even offer a free screening process to help you to see if you qualify for an ESA, before you make a financial commitment.

It’s All About the ESA Letter!

If you’ve been diagnosed with a psychological or emotional disability like depression, anxiety, PTSD or similar, and your licensed mental health professional thinks that you could benefit from having an emotional support animal, they will prescribe you one by writing you an ESA letter. An ESA letter is an official document that lasts for one year, and serves as proof of your need for an ESA.

The ESA letter should be printed on letter-headed paper and contain the following information:

  • You’ve been diagnosed with a mental illness or emotional disability, and the emotional support animal is an important part of your ongoing treatment plan
  • License details of the issuer, including license number, date and place of issue

If You’ve Got an ESA, These Laws Are on Your Side

The good news is that both service dogs and emotional support animals receive specific and extensive training under US law. However, these laws, and which ones apply to which kinds of assistance animals, can be a little difficult to get your head around. Don’t worry though, we’ve rounded it up for you here.

Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) outlines the full definitions of an emotional support animal and a service animal, so it’s definitely worth checking out if you have either of these. The ADA also protects the rights of service animal handlers to bring their service animals into any place where the public is permitted, including restaurants, shops, businesses, libraries, and more.

However, this section of the law does not cover emotional support animals. If you want to bring your ESA with you to a shop or bar, you’ll need to check whether the business accepts pets first.

Fair Housing Act

Unlike the ADA, the Fair Housing Act covers both emotional support animals and service dogs. The Act protects the rights of people with disabilities who are living in rented accommodation.

Part of this protection is the right to keep an assistance animal with you at home, without paying pet fees, and regardless of pet bans from landlords of homeowners associations.

In the case of emotional support animals, landlords are entitled to ask to see an ESA letter.

Air Carrier Access Act

The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) is perhaps the best-known piece of legislation relating to assistance animals, yet it is often misunderstood or misinterpreted.

In short, the ACAA protects the rights of people with disabilities while traveling. Under this protection, they are permitted to bring assistance animals (service dogs an emotional support animals) into the cabin of any commercial flight with them, free of charge, and regardless of the airline’s rules on pets.

Many airlines have been tightening their regulations on emotional support animals recently, and most will now ask passengers to present a valid ESA letter in advance of traveling. Some airlines have strict rules on which species will be accepted as ESAs, while a few (like Alaska and Southwest) limit it to cats and dogs only.

If you’re planning on flying with an ESA, it’s always a good idea to contact the airline before booking your tickets to find out exactly what their policy is, and what paperwork you will need to provide.


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