Emotional support animals are often in the news, whether in a positive or negative light. Yet there is a great deal of misunderstanding about these animal helpers, both from businesses and members of the public. In this article, we’ll attempt to dispell some myths, as well as explaining exactly what emotional support animals are and how to get one.
An emotional support animal (ESA for short) is a domesticated animal that helps people with a mental illness or emotional disability to cope with their symptoms and carry out daily tasks. Unlike the highly trained service dogs that help to guide blind people or aid wheelchair users with mobility-related tasks, ESAs don’t need any special training: they just need to be able to help their owners feel calm, loved, and supported.
What Are Emotional Support Animals and How To Get One?
In order to get an emotional support animal, you must meet certain criteria: namely that you must have been diagnosed with a mental or emotional condition. This diagnosis must be made by a licensed mental health professional who is treating you for that condition. If the mental health professional believes that an emotional support animal would be beneficial to your treatment, they will write you an ESA letter.
What is an ESA Letter?
An emotional support animal letter is an official document written specifically for you by a licensed mental health professional who is treating you for a diagnosed mental health condition or emotional disability. The letter is valid for one year from when it is issued, and must outline the following information:
- that you have been diagnosed with a mental health-related condition or emotional disorder
- that the animal is an emotional support animal and is necessary for your ongoing treatment or for you to carry out day-to-day tasks
- details of the issuer’s license number and licensing authority
An ESA letter is the only “proof” you need that your animal is an emotional support animal.
Beware Fake ESA Letters!
As emotional support animals become more common and more widely known, an unfortunate byproduct of this is a corresponding upsurge in sites and services offering fake ESA letters, or those that offer to “certify” a pet as an ESA, or add it to an “ESA register”. There is no way of registering or certifying an animal as an emotional support animal, and these “services” are a scam.
As we said above, the only way to get an emotional support animal is to get an ESA letter that is written for you by a licensed mental health professional who is treating you. There are legitimate emotional support animal registration websites out there that will help you to get an ESA by connecting you with a licensed mental health professional in your state, who will then have a consultation with you before issuing an ESA letter. However, look out for sites that offer “no-questions-asked” ESA letters or a template where you simply fill in the blanks. ESA letters of this kind are not valid, and are likely to cause you a lot of stress and expense in the long run.
The Laws Covering ESAs
For many people, getting an emotional support animal can open up a whole world of possibility, giving them the confidence to go more places, see more things, and to travel. Understandably, it is important to many ESA owners to be able to bring their animal with them for emotional support while out and about. In this section, we’ll cover all the laws regarding where you can and can’t bring emotional support animals.
1. Fair Housing Act
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) protects people with disabilities living in rented accommodation from discrimination by housing providers, landlords, or homeowners associations. It also covers on-campus accommodation at colleges and universities. One of the stipulations of the FHA is that people with service dogs or emotional support animals should be able to live with them in their rented homes, even where pets are not otherwise allowed. Emotional support animals are also not subject to pet fees or deposits. Tenants may need to provide a valid ESA letter before bringing their ESA onto the premises.
Where the FHA covers rented accommodation, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) covers air travel, protecting people with disabilities from discriminations while flying. As part of the ACAA, passengers traveling with service dogs or emotional support animals may travel with the animal in the cabin free of charge, even on airlines that forbid pets. Once again, passengers will often have to show a valid ESA letter ahead of traveling.
3. Does the Americans with Disabilities Act Cover ESAs?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the most important piece of legislation on protecting the rights of people with disabilities in public places. While the ADA protects the right of people with trained service dogs to bring them into businesses, public accommodations, and other places, this law does not extend to emotional support animals. With that being said, the trend for pet-friendly businesses is growing, so you may still be able to bring your ESA to certain shops or restaurants with you.
Exceptions to the Laws
As with all laws, there are certain important exceptions to the laws regarding emotional support animals. ESAs can be refused entry to places that they are otherwise permitted in the following circumstances:
- the ESA is acting aggressively or deemed a danger to members of the public
- the ESA is disruptive: barking, jumping, or refusing to settle, for example
- the animal is not properly housebroken and eliminates indoors
- the animal gives off a foul odor or is deemed unclean
- some airlines and housing providers restrict the definition of ESA to dogs and cats only
What Kind of Animals Make Good ESAs?
The best kind of emotional support animal is one that you have a special bond with, and one that is able to help you feel calmer and more in control. As such, the ideal ESA differs as much as people’s personalities differ! With that in mind though, there are certain characteristics that good ESAs all have in common, such as an ability to behave well in public, to respond to commands, and to settle quietly when told.
While any domesticated animal can be an ESA, if you plan to take yours out and about with you, a dog or a cat is probably your best option. If you already have a pet with whom you share a special bond, this pet can become an ESA. If not, why not consider adopting your ESA from an animal shelter?