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How to Get an ESA Letter in California

The state of California has earned its reputation as being one of the most progressive states in the country. We see evidence of this in many areas of daily living, including cannabis, housing, and the job market. Fortunately, this progressiveness also extends to the laws and use of ESA letters for those with mental health needs.

Residents in California can expect to enjoy certain rights when it comes to owning and living with an emotional support animal. Landlords and housing authorities are expected to comply with federal and state regulations when it comes to tenants with ESAs and face hefty punishments if a tenant is not properly accommodated.

However, in order to enjoy these benefits and freedoms that are protected by law, you must first get an official ESA letter in California. This letter serves as validation for your emotional support animal, differentiating it from just a regular pet. Without this letter, you may be rightfully denied housing and other potential benefits that emotional support animals are entitled to.

So, how do you get an ESA letter in California? How much does it cost? Who has to approve it? And once you receive your ESA letter, what do you do next?

We’re covering the answers to all of these questions and more in this guide: How to Get an ESA Letter in California. Let’s go!

What California Law Says about Emotional Support Animals

When it comes to housing, California law aligns with the federal Fair Housing Act, which applies to every state in the U.S. According to the Fair Housing Act, an emotional support animal has the right to live with you in your home at no additional charge. This means that your landlord cannot impose additional pet fees or related costs just because you have an emotional support animal.

What’s more, this also entitles you to have your pet live with you even in areas where pets are not otherwise permitted.

In order to enjoy this benefit, you must be able to provide your landlord with an ESA letter, which states that you have an emotional support animal as part of treatment (more on this in a later section).

Definition of Emotional Support Animal in California

In California, the legal definition of an emotional support animal is “a dog or other animal that is not trained to perform specific tasks related to a person’s disability.” Rather, the animal’s purpose is to provide feelings of safety, calmness, and well-being simply by being present to the individual.

About AB 468 and Its Impact on ESAs

Recently, the state of California introduced and passed AB 468, which provides additional legal clarification on emotional support animals.

Specifically, California state law now says that any person or business selling animals that will be used as emotional support animals must provide the buyer with a letter stating that the animal has not received any training to be used as a service animal. The letter must also include that the animal is not entitled to the same rights as a guide, signal, or service dog, and that knowingly representing the animal as a guide, signal, or service dog is a misdemeanor offense.

In addition, AB 468 states that any business selling harnesses, tags, identification, certificates, or other items to be used by the emotional support animal must provide a letter to the buyer. The letter must state that these items do not entitle the animal to the same privileges of a guide, signal, or service dog and that knowingly representing the animal as such will be subjected to a misdemeanor offense.

For California residents seeking an ESA letter, the third part of AB 468 is critical. While ESA letters were relatively quick to obtain in the past, this is no longer the case for CA residents. Healthcare practitioners are unable to write a letter of prescription for those who need ESAs unless they adhere to the following guidelines:

  • Possess a valid healthcare license;
  • Provide their license number, jurisdiction, license effective date, and a copy of their license in the documentation;
  • Is licensed to provide healthcare services within the scope of their license and in their stated jurisdiction;
  • Establishes and maintains a provider-client relationship for at least 30 days prior to issuing the ESA letter;
  • Completes a clinical evaluation of the patient seeking ESA qualification; and
  • Provides a written notice to the individual seeking ESA qualification that knowingly representing their animal as a service animal is subjected to a misdemeanor offense.

The reason for these changes is due to the rise in fraudulent emotional support animals. Owners of trained service animals claim that the rise in emotional support animals say they feel their own animals are jeopardized.

For those who try to give their ESAs the same rights and privileges as service animals, such as taking their animals into public spaces where pets typically aren’t allowed. Businesses and landlords also face an extra layer of complexity. They may put themselves into legal jeopardy in having to make decisions on whether to permit an animal on the premises without violating a person’s rights.

What to Do Next

It’s a messy situation in many regards, and California lawmakers are using AB 468 to help set the record straight and prevent potential instances of ESA fraud.

 

However, in doing so, they are also raising the bar higher for people who truly need an emotional support animal. By extending the waiting period to receive an ESA qualification letter, they are potentially delaying a critical piece of treatment for those who need it.

That’s why it’s important to understand your rights as a California resident and set the right expectations for receiving an ESA letter.

What is an ESA Letter?

By definition, an ESA letter is a lot like a prescription. But instead of taking your letter to your local pharmacy, you simply file it away until you need to use it as proof of your treatment.

ESA letters are official documents written by your healthcare providers, such as a counselor or mental health professional. The letter serves to “qualify” you to have an emotional support animal as part of your mental health treatment.

Technically, you do not need an ESA letter to have an emotional support animal. Any animal that provides you with comfort can be considered an emotional support animal, with or without a letter. An ESA letter is not a certification for your pet or animal and does not pertain to any specific animal.

However, you will need an ESA letter if you rent your property. Without one, you may face unfair pet fees or deposits, or worse, your animal might not be allowed to live with you at all. The ESA letter is kind of like a “Get out of jail free” card. It allows your pet to not only live with you, but also live with you for free. They’re protected under the Fair Housing Act, even in places where pets might not be allowed.

Only a licensed healthcare practitioner can write an ESA letter. Now, with the passing of AB 468 in California, patients must wait at least 30 days after seeing a healthcare practitioner before they can be eligible for an ESA letter. The ESA letter must include a few specific details, including:

  • Your healthcare practitioner’s name
  • Their license number and jurisdiction
  • The date of issuance
  • Their signature
  • Their recommendations for an emotional support animal

Under no circumstances must the letter divulge any personal medical information regarding a condition or treatment, though. Rest assured your privacy is still protected and that the letter only contains need-to-know information.

When applying for housing, you can submit a copy of your ESA letter to your landlord so they will know that your “pet” is actually a vital health companion. You should not be subjected to pet fees or deposits, and your pet can enjoy the property with you, inside and out.

Getting an ESA Letter Online in California

While the timeline of obtaining an ESA letter in California has changed, the process of getting your ESA letter online has not. Especially during the pandemic, many mental health professionals shifted their counseling sessions to an online format. And even though you need to connect with a healthcare practitioner in your jurisdiction, they’re not hard to find online.

At Therapypet.org, we make it easy for you to find a healthcare professional in your area who can connect with you and provide you with a valid ESA letter if they believe it will be effective. Here’s how it works:

Step 1: Complete Our Instant Screening

Therapypet.org allows you to take an instant screening to see if you might qualify for an ESA letter. The questionnaire is very simple and takes just five minutes to complete.

By no means are the results of the screening a guarantee. Rather, it’s designed to find the people who are most likely to qualify to speak with one of our healthcare professionals and receive a letter if they recommend an emotional support animal.

We don’t want to waste your time. This is especially true now that California residents must now work with a healthcare professional for over 30 days or more before they can be eligible for an emotional support animal.

Step 2: Choose the Type of ESA Letter You Need

Our healthcare professionals can provide you with an ESA letter for travel, housing, or both. Under California law and federal law, housing privileges remain intact for those with emotional support animals. The travel industry is a different story, though.

It used to be that emotional support animals were protected under the Air Carrier Access Act, but recent regulations have changed. Now, it’s up to each individual airline to decide whether to allow therapy pets to fly onboard the aircraft with their owners. However, because some airlines still do offer this service as a convenience to their guests, it can be beneficial to have an ESA travel letter if you plan on flying with your therapy animal.

Step 3: Connect with a Local Mental Health Professional

One of the benefits of Therapypet.org is having the ability to connect with a mental healthcare professional remotely. You will be able to complete all of your conversations with a therapist online, something that many people with anxiety, PTSD, and other mental health conditions prefer.

This means you don’t have to trouble yourself with finding a therapist in your local area, something that can be time-consuming, stressful, and difficult. There’s also no risk of walking into a physical office and seeing someone you know. Many of our patients don’t want others to know they are receiving treatment for their mental health, and we’re happy to help remove the stigma of seeking treatment by maintaining your confidentiality.

Step 4: Receive Your Letter!

Your therapist will decide how often they need to speak with you to learn more about your unique conditions, your current treatments (if any), and other details. They will decide whether an emotional support animal might benefit your condition. If they determine that this is a great option for you, you will receive your ESA letter within 72 hours with expedited shipping.

Who Qualifies for a California ESA Letter?

Emotional support animals benefit individuals with a variety of mental health conditions. These conditions include, but are not limited to:

  • PTSD
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Social anxiety
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Personality disorders
  • Autism
  • Schizophrenia and related psychotic disorders
  • Learning disabilities

Each of the above has a wide variety of symptoms, but they all share one common characteristic: the crippling impact on daily life. Mental health disorders tend to make living a normal life very difficult. They can severely limit daily activities and decrease a person’s quality of life. It’s in these cases where a healthcare provider is most likely to recommend getting a pet for emotional support, along with an ESA letter to make it “official.”

Your healthcare practitioner will be in charge of making a mental health diagnosis and decide whether an emotional support animal should be part of your prescribed treatment.

There is no age requirements when it comes to qualifying for an emotional support animal. Children and adults alike have benefitted from the comfort and calmness that a special animal brings to them.

Who Can Write an ESA Letter in California?

Individuals can obtain an ESA letter in person or remotely. But the only way your letter will be valid will be if it’s issued and signed by a licensed healthcare professional in California. Eligible professionals include counselors, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and doctors, for example.

The letter must be signed and dated and contain the required information (e.g., the provider’s license number, contact information, etc.). Also, the letter should explicitly say that you have a mental impairment that is improved with the presence of an emotional support animal.

If you are using a service like Therapypet.org, you can rest assured that we will connect you with a healthcare professional licensed in California. We take the guesswork out of the process for you so that every ESA letter we send is valid and will be legally accepted.

Can a Landlord Deny an Emotional Support Animal?

Landlords are legally obligated to make accommodations for renters with ESAs under the Fair Housing Act. However, with the rise of ESA fraud, many landlords may not realize that emotional support animals have a real purpose and a profound impact on their owners.

In California, there have been documented cases where landlords and realty companies did not accept a renter’s ESA letter. And naturally, there were consequences.

In one California lawsuit, a tenant was told by a real estate company that she could not bring her emotional support dogs to her new rental. She suffered from depression and ADD, both of which are recognized as disabilities. The tenant was initially told she could move in with her dogs without having to pay a pet deposit. But this changed when the landlord asked to see the documentation that the dogs were medically necessary. She furnished an ESA letter she had obtained from a remote healthcare provider, and the realty company denied her application altogether since the dogs did not perform tasks.

This is a classic case of why understanding the difference between a service dog and an emotional support dog matters. Both are valid and protected under the Fair Housing Act. However, the two are not the same since they serve different purposes.

In this case, the tenant’s ESA letter came from her former healthcare provider in Colorado, not California. But after connecting with a local psychiatrist, he agreed the dogs would continue to help her condition and wrote her a new ESA letter bearing the California jurisdiction.

Still, the tenant was denied their rights and the realty company had to pay $175,000 in damages as well as the tenant’s legal fees. To ensure repeat instances like this never happen again, the company also hired a compliance manager and provided training to all of its employees.

The costs of a single incident like this can be devastating to businesses, but they can also be stressful and nerve-wracking for the individual. It’s important to know your rights when it comes to living and traveling with your emotional support animal so you can advocate for yourself with confidence.

Is It Hard to Qualify for an ESA Letter?

There are many individuals who clearly benefit from an emotional support animal. If you have had an official diagnosis for a mental health condition, then chances are you will qualify for an ESA letter.

However, if you are just beginning to seek treatment for a possible mental health disorder, you may need to speak with a counselor over several sessions before you qualify.

This is because mental health specialists can’t always make a diagnosis after just one conversation. They’re not here just to help you qualify for an ESA letter, but also to help you improve your overall quality of life.

Also, in some cases, your healthcare practitioner may not approve you for an emotional support animal even if you have a mental health condition. This is because taking on an emotional support animal is a big responsibility and an expense. If you or your family are unable to provide the animal with veterinary care, do not have adequate space for the animal, or having the responsibility of an animal might cause undue hardship, then your doctor may recommend other treatment options.

If you want them to consider an emotional support animal, you can certainly ask if they think it’s the right path for you. If they decide it’s not, they’ll most likely be transparent with their reasoning.

How Much Do ESA Letters Cost?

The cost of an ESA letter can vary, depending on the way you obtain one. Typically, an assessment to see if you qualify for an ESA letter may range from $100 to $150 or more. But now that California has changed its approach to issuing ESA letters, the total cost could be quite more.

That’s because your healthcare provider cannot issue an ESA letter after just one conversation. There needs to be an established relationship spanning at least 30 days or more in order for them to write you an ESA letter. Because you are likely engaging with them over several visits, you will need to account for the cost of each visit.

Don’t be afraid to ask about costs upfront. This will give you a good idea as to how much you might need to set aside. And if an emotional support animal will truly help your condition, regaining your quality of life will be worth every penny.

Do I Have to Renew My ESA Letter in California?

One thing that has not changed in ESA rules in California is the validation period for an ESA letter. Typically, ESA letters are good for one year from the date the letter is issued. When the letter expires, you will need to reconnect with your healthcare provider and see if they will continue recommending an emotional support animal as part of your treatment.

This is similar to how medication prescriptions work. After a period, your doctor will want to re-evaluate you to see if your condition has changed. If so, it might call for a change in your treatment options. The same approach applies here: even though many of the qualifying health conditions are lifelong, your doctor will still want to check in with you to see how your emotional support animal has helped you.

That said, there is no official “renewal” process. There’s no database of expiration dates or official processes to upload new documentation. Once you receive a new letter, keep it in your personal files until you need it.

It’s best to maintain a current version of your ESA letter at all times. Landlords may not accept a letter that is several years old and may require you to furnish a recent letter. Even if you don’t plan on moving any time soon, it’s still wise to get an updated letter so that you’re always prepared.

Are you a California resident who needs a legitimate ESA letter? Therapy Pet is here for you with access to multiple remote healthcare providers licensed in the Golden State. Get started today with our free instant screening!