If you get a warm, fuzzy feeling every time you hug your dog, there’s a reason for that. Animals (especially emotional support animals) aren’t just fun to be around; they can also help to relieve stress and anxiety and make you feel happier.
Animals have played a significant role in assisting people with disabilities for more than a hundred years. In fact, the first guide dog was assigned to a blind World War One veteran in 1916. Dogs and other animals have provided therapy for decades, and their benefits are continuing to be explored.
The emotional support animal (ESA) has been introduced more recently to provide emotional support and companionship to individuals diagnosed with mental health disorders. These animals come with a document known as an ESA letter that qualifies a person to obtain an emotional support animal.
An ESA letter (issued by a psychologist, psychiatrist, or another licensed health professional) legally guarantees that the support animal may accompany the person in places where pets might not be allowed or require the handler to pay additional fees, such as housing or airline travel.
It’s important to know your legal rights as someone who has a registered emotional support animal. Let’s look at some specifics:
The most legitimate way to get an emotional support animal is to talk to your doctor. There is no service or emotional support animal registry in the United States, so ESA registration is not required by law. To obtain a support animal, you must get an ESA letter from a licensed mental health provider.
Talk to your health provider to decide whether you need (and qualify for) an emotional support animal as part of your treatment.
To qualify for ESA, your healthcare provider must certify that:
If you qualify for an ESA, your health care provider will issue an ESA letter.
ESA letters are valid for one year and will need to be renewed. The recommended practice is to renew your ESA annually to avoid the inconvenience of being denied housing or boarding an aircraft due to outdated documentation.
If you travel regularly, you should renew your ESA letter with a licensed mental health professional at least once a year. Under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) for emotional support animals, airlines can request up-to-date documentation from passengers who seek to travel with an emotional support animal. As the ACCA defines it, the current documentation is an ESA letter from a licensed mental health professional “no older than one year from the date of the passenger’s scheduled initial flight.”
An ESA letter is free. Anyone with an emotional support animal does not need to pay any fees for their ESA letter. An ESA letter comes from a licensed healthcare professional such as a psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist, counselor, social worker, doctor, or physician’s assistant.
An anxiety disorder is not something that automatically qualifies you for an emotional support animal. You need to have an established diagnosis and obtain a recommendation from a licensed mental health professional or doctor to apply for a therapy dog for anxiety.
It is essential to understand the difference between a dog as an emotional support animal, a service dog, and a therapy dog.
Emotional support animals alleviate the symptoms of anxiety just with their therapeutic presence. These animals are not trained to perform any tasks.
On the other hand, psychiatric service dogs are trained to perform various tasks and undergo specific training to qualify as support animals.
A psychiatric service dog can help you if you suffer from anxiety by:
Service dogs have full public access per the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Therapy dogs must be adult dogs older than one year. They need to be certified by an American Kennel Club (AKC)-recognized therapy dog organization. Therapy dogs also have to be trained to provide support, affection, and comfort.
These animals go with their owners to volunteer in various settings (nursing homes, assisted living facilities, hospitals, schools, etc.) to improve the lives of people with disabilities.
Therapy dogs are not the same as service dogs, who are trained to provide a specific service. They also differ from emotional support animals, which require an ESA letter or prescription from a licensed mental health professional (but don’t require any special training).
Therapy dogs need to be certified from and registered in a reputable national organization such as Alliance Therapy Dogs, Pet Partners, Therapy Dogs International, and others.
To become a therapy dog, your dog needs to undergo training to acquire good manners and social skills and learn to perform specific tasks to assist people with disabilities.
Even though emotional support animals do not require any special training, they serve a valid purpose for their handlers. Emotional support animals offer relief to people in anxiety-provoking situations, help alleviate the symptoms of depression, bring comfort to those who are grieving, and offer companionship to people who are feeling lonely.
An emotional support animal is part of the therapeutic process recognized under law (the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Air Carrier Access Act) to help people with psychological disorders such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, panic attacks, and more.
Therefore, ESAs have special rights that aren’t afforded to average pets. For example, emotional support animals are allowed on flights in-cabin and at no additional charge. Your housing landlord cannot refuse to accommodate you as an ESA owner due to a “no pets” policy, as ESA are not considered pets.
However, despite the lack of animal training, you still need an official recommendation for an ESA from a healthcare provider.
Since emotional support animals are not required to have any training like service animals, they may not be allowed to accompany you in public places such as stores, restaurants, hotels, or other spaces.
Nevertheless, individual states have their own laws about bringing ESAs in public places. It’s best to double-check with your local government about the rules on taking your emotional support dog to stores.
People with emotional support animals have specific protection and rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Air Carrier Access Act. Having an ESA means that you are, for instance, allowed to live with your animal in a building that has a “no pets permitted” policy, so you don’t have to disclose your emotional support animal.
Although you are not required to let your building management, landlord, or owner know about your ESA, you may give them your ESA letter before signing the lease.
Got more questions about your legal rights as an ESA owner? Explore our Frequently Asked Questions for more details.