Emotional support animals (ESAs) can do wonders for someone suffering from mild to severe anxiety or other mental health issues. In fact, the federal government recognizes the benefits of ESAs too, which is why ESAs are granted special legal rights in certain situations. But to take advantage of those legal rights, you first need to know how to get an ESA letter.
Having an emotional support animal can help a person with mental or emotional issues live a normal day-to-day life. And with the rise of conditions like depression, anxiety, PTSD, OCD, and others on the rise, the inclusion of emotional support animals is likely to grow, too.
If you are among the 51.5 million people who currently experience mental illness and feel an emotional support animal can improve your daily life, you may be eligible for an ESA letter. This letter allows you to enjoy all of the benefits that come with having a registered emotional support animal so you can live your best life without question.
Here’s how to get an ESA letter and other facts you should know first.
An emotional support animal letter, or ESA letter, is an official document that verifies your need to have an emotional support animal. Some people refer to ESA letters as prescription letters or ESA evaluations. Much like a doctor prescribing medication for a condition, an ESA letter acts as your “prescription” from a licensed mental healthcare provider that an ESA is part of your treatment.
The ESA letter does not contain any personal details about your condition. Someone reading the letter will only see that an emotional support animal has been recommended and approved to you by your healthcare provider. This way, when you need to furnish the ESA letter to someone, such as a landlord, they will only receive the necessary information to ensure your legal rights are protected.
Valid ESA letters contain a number of important details, which is one way to tell apart a real ESA letter vs a potential scam.
Much like a prescription for medication, your ESA letter will include the name, license number, and license type of the Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMPH) who issued the letter. The letter will also include the date the letter was issued as well as your issuing healthcare provider’s signature.
In the body of the letter, your LMPH will state that you have a mental condition that is alleviated by an emotional support animal. Though the letter will not go into great detail, it will explain that an emotional support animal is necessary for you to live a higher quality of life and that the animal specifically helps with mental illness symptoms.
If you already have an animal that will serve as your emotional support animal, the letter might list the animal or breed you’ve chosen. This is not a requirement of an ESA letter, however.
As for personal details, the letter will include your name but nothing specific about your condition. Your LMPH may also choose to include other details they believe are valid. Their goal in writing this letter is to offer their professional opinion on your condition and treatment and show affected parties (e.g., landlords, etc.) that your animal serves a specific purpose in your life.
Getting an official ESA letter is becoming a popular trend, particularly as mental health awareness continues to increase. More people are starting to seek alternative ways to manage and address their conditions, and emotional support animals play an important role in this process.
Unfortunately, this growth in popularity has also led to a number of scams that are tarnishing the purpose and process of ESA letters. The benefits of an ESA have spread like wildfire, making people believe that they can “qualify” for an ESA letter so they can take their pets into stores, on flights, and other places where pets aren’t normally allowed.
This idea has also led to many people bringing all kinds of animals into public spaces, such as goats, pigs, monkeys, ducks, peacocks, and llamas.
As a result, there are many scams online that offer ESA letters for a fee. It’s easy for anyone with a credit card to receive one, even if they do not have a mental health condition. These “companies” will send you a letter that looks valid on the surface and may even include special extras like a vest for your animal to wear in public or a special certificate for your pet. But at the core, they are fake ESA letters because they have not been prescribed as part of a real treatment plan.
If your landlord, a hotel desk clerk, or another figure were to identify your ESA letter as a fake, they technically do not have to grant you any legal rights that a real ESA letter would offer. This means you could be denied your hotel room while on vacation. Or, you might have to pay a high pet fee for air travel or your new apartment. It’s just not worth the risk.
What many people may not realize is that finding loopholes or getting fake ESA letters is doing harm to the people who actually need emotional support animals. It sets the wrong expectations about people who bring a valid emotional support animal in public. Jokes about emotional support animals can also lead people to take them less seriously and not understand the real value these animals bring to their owners.
The only real way to get an official ESA letter is through a licensed mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist, social worker, counselor, therapist, physician, or psychologist.
Are you currently seeing a mental health professional for help with your condition? If so, they may be the best place to start when seeking an ESA letter.
If you do not currently have a physician or LMHP that is treating you, follow these steps to receive your legitimate ESA letter.
Remember, ESA letters are just like prescriptions — you need to speak to someone about your condition before you can receive an ESA letter.
You can check in your local area to find a licensed mental health professional near you. This can be beneficial if you want to have an ongoing relationship with a therapist or counselor. Remember, emotional support animals are meant to be part of an overall treatment plan. Your condition may benefit from ongoing sessions with a therapist and other recommendations.
If your licensed therapist determines that an emotional support animal would benefit your treatment, they will proceed with writing you an ESA letter.
Depending on your healthcare provider, you might receive your ESA letter before you walk out of the office. Chances are this isn’t the first ESA letter your LMHP has prescribed, so they may be able to personalize and print one for you fairly quickly.
However, not all providers work the same. In a busy practice, some providers may choose to have you pick up your letter on another day or even mail it to your home. You should ask your provider what to expect. If you find that you will need to wait three days or longer, it might be better to get your ESA letter online.
It’s understandable if you don’t feel comfortable going to a physical office in your area for fear that you might see someone you know. If this is the case, Therapypet.org can connect you with an LMPH online for a private one-on-one session.
What’s more, our process connects you with a provider who is licensed in your state. This is a very important part of the process, as ESA letters are only valid if they are prescribed by someone who is licensed to practice in your state.
To connect you with an LMHP, we conduct a quick screening to see if you might qualify for an ESA letter. This assessment is completely free and will allow us to connect you with the right mental health professional.
After the screening process, you will be able to chat in real time with one of our licensed therapists. Your conversation is just as private as though you were in a physical office. This is your chance to talk about your condition (diagnosed or undiagnosed) and why you feel you might benefit from an emotional support animal.
If you are approved for an emotional support animal as part of your treatment, you will receive your official ESA letter in as little as 72 hours. Keep in mind you only pay if you are approved.
Once you receive your letter, you can use it when you apply for housing, make hotel reservations, or enjoy air travel with certain airlines.
Technically speaking, you do not need an ESA letter to have a pet as part of your therapy. Any animal that provides you comfort and can help calm feelings of anxiety and depression can be beneficial to your mental health.
However, many choose to obtain an ESA letter because of the benefits it offers in certain scenarios.
For example, let’s say you have a dog that helps manage your PTSD symptoms. You are trying to move to a new apartment to be closer to your job. You find the perfect place, something nice, safe, and within your budget. But the apartment complex has a strict no-pets rule. What can you do?
This is one of many examples where having an official ESA letter comes in handy. An emotional support animal has more legal rights than the average “pet” when it comes to things like housing. Because your emotional support animal is akin to having medication for a condition, your landlord or HOA cannot deny your pet. What’s more, some or all of any pet fees may be waived, depending on the rental company. Your pet will also be allowed in any common areas at the apartment complex, even if regular pets are not permitted.
Here’s another scenario: Let’s say you’ve planned your dream vacation. The hotel usually doesn’t allow pets, but you can’t leave your precious pup behind. You also dread the thought of traveling through a crowded airport alone and navigating a new place, even though you’re excited to get away for a few days.
This one is a bit trickier since hotels are not required to allow emotional support animals. However, you may find that many of them do offer this as a convenience to their guests. What’s more, some hotels may look at your documentation and consider your emotional support animal as a service animal, which would be allowed in hotels and protected by law.
Last one: air travel. In the past, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) allowed emotional support animals to fly in the cabin with their owner and without having to pay a pet fee. However, this law has recently be updated and airlines are now able to treat emotional support animals like pets. This means that you may have to pay a pet fee and your animal will need to ride in the cargo area of the plane.
The good news: this is not the case for all airlines. Many airlines still treat ESAs in a similar manner as service animals, provided you have proper documentation. This means that, depending on the airline, your pet can stay with you and will not be subjected to a pet fee.
People who have emotional support animals may also be able to take them to work or into stores. However, understand that doing so is not a legal right and not all workplaces, stores, or other public places are willing to grant your ESA entrance. Many places that allow animals do so as a courtesy. Store owners and employers have a right to deny emotional support animals.
However, having an official ESA letter may help to tip the scales in your favor if you are ever confronted.
Bottom line: an ESA letter is not the same as having a service animal. There are still many limits you will experience, but an ESA letter may alleviate some of these limits in certain situations, to a degree.
Given the number of ESA letter scams circulating online, many people believe that anyone can get an ESA letter. This is certainly not the case, however.
The main purpose of an emotional support animal is to assist someone who experiences a mental health illness or condition and needs help alleviating those symptoms so they can live a normal life (or close to it). Therefore, not everyone will qualify for an ESA because not everyone has a mental health condition.
In addition, not everyone who seeks treatment from a licensed mental health professional will qualify for an emotional support animal. Your therapist will be the judge as to whether an emotional support animal may help your daily life. They will listen to you, understand what you’re experiencing and how you’re feeling. They will ask about the struggles you face on an ongoing basis and learn what has and hasn’t worked for you in the past. They want to help you find the best solutions to live a better quality of life.
In many cases, an emotional support animal can help. But there may be times when a therapist doesn’t feel that an ESA is the best path forward. For example, if you are feeling constant stress and anxiety about working multiple jobs to make ends meet, then an emotional support animal might only add to that stress. You wouldn’t have enough time to spend with it, bond with it, and care for it. Plus, it will be another expense for you in terms of food and veterinary care.
This is why consulting with an LMHP is so important. They have the training and ability to see things that we haven’t thought of. They’re here to help make the right recommendations that will actually improve your life.
So, who will qualify for an ESA letter? That’s up to a therapist on a case-by-case basis. But in general, a good candidate for an ESA letter is someone who:
Your therapist may ask specific questions related to each of the above “criteria.” Keep in mind that even if you only meet one or two of these, you may still qualify for an emotional support animal. It’s important to be as open, honest, and thorough as possible so your therapist can understand your situation and make the best recommendation.
When you receive your ESA letter, it’s important to understand your legal rights that come with it. Many people make the mistake of treating an ESA like a service animal, but the two are not the same and are not legally protected the same. Do not assume that just because you have an ESA letter means you can enjoy the same rights as a service animal owner.
Even though emotional support animals offer a “service” to their owners, they are not technically service animals. This is because their only job is to provide emotional support and do not require any special training.
Service animals are trained to do specific tasks, such as lead a blind person, retrieve medications, or alerting others to a seizure or diabetic issue. The service animal’s owner usually has some sort of disability and simply cannot function normally without the assistance of the animal. This is why service animals are granted more legal rights and protections than emotional support animals.
One other key difference is the type of animal that can be a service animal or emotional support animal. This is where ESAs enjoy more flexibility. Currently, the law states that only dogs and miniature horses can be service animals. This isn’t true for ESAs, however. ESAs are not breed- or species-specific. This means that just about any animal can be an emotional support animal if it brings you comfort when you need it most.
The biggest and most notable legal area for emotional support animals is under the Fair Housing Act. The law states that tenants can have an emotional support animal living under their roof even if the building typically prohibits pets. What’s more, landlords and HOAs may not impose fees or deposits for emotional support animals even if those fees apply to regular pets.
When presenting a landlord or HOA with an ESA letter, the receiving party is not legally allowed to ask for any specific details about your condition. They also cannot ask for copies of your medical records or have you undergo a medical exam.
However, even if you suffer from a mental health condition and depend on the comfort your pet brings, your ESA legal rights will not be recognized by law without an official ESA letter.
When you receive your first ESA letter, the letter is valid for one year from the issued date. ESA letters will require annual renewal to maintain validity.
The Fair Housing Act does not provide a clear-cut definition on whether a new ESA letter must be presented each year. You may still enjoy your legal rights with your emotional support animal for as long as you remain in your current home. Your landlord may not know the letter expires after one year and may not think to ask you to provide a current one.
However, if you decide to move, you may find your ESA rights denied by a landlord or HOA if your ESA letter is more than a year old. You can consult your therapist to renew your ESA letter, but keep in mind that a therapist might not renew the letter without first doing a new evaluation.
This is very similar to how doctors renew prescriptions for medications. They want to ensure the current treatment is still working for you, explore potentially better options, and check in with you to see how things might have changed since your last evaluation.
According to the Fair Housing Act, a landlord may not look into a tenant’s medical history to get specific details about a condition. However, they can see the name of the therapist who prescribed the ESA letter. If the landlord reaches out to your therapist for confirmation, your therapist might not feel comfortable validating the letter if it is out of date.
This is why it’s always a safe bet to renew your ESA letter each year. This gives you a chance to connect with a mental health professional at least once per year, which in itself can be beneficial to your condition. If you fear that you may no longer qualify for an emotional support animal, talk about how much it has helped you in the last year and state your desire to continue having an emotional support animal as part of your treatment.
As you are navigating the process of getting an official ESA letter, it’s equally important to learn how to spot an ESA letter scam. If you end up with a fake ESA letter, you will not have access to the legal rights that a valid letter offers and can experience undue stress and hardship as a result.
One of the best ways to avoid an ESA letter scam is to learn how to spot one. For starters, any program that says you do not have to speak to a licensed therapist is a bad sign. Or, if a provider does have a therapist “on hand,” this person should be in the same state as you. If they do not ask about your state or cannot prove they are licensed in your state, take it as a sign this is a scam.
Before you pay for a letter, do a quick Google search on their name to make sure they are truly licensed and therefore able to prescribe an ESA letter. This simple act takes just a few seconds to do and can save you money, time, and stress.
You can also check the ESA letter provider against the Better Business Bureau. Read online reviews from other users to see if they are legitimate.
Last but not least, be wary of companies that use false language and try to sell you unnecessary products. For example, some companies might lead you to believe you need to register your dog as an emotional support dog. There is actually no such thing as a registered emotional support dog. Your ESA letter is sufficient evidence. Some companies might try to sell you special vests (they look like service animal vests), certificates, and other junk that isn’t required.
Other red flags include, but are not limited to:
ESA letters obtained online can be valid, but only when you are able to connect with a licensed therapist in your state and the letter contains the required information.
At TherapyPet.org, we’re simplifying the process of getting an ESA letter for patients who need them the most. Our discreet, online-only approach takes the guesswork and embarrassment out of seeking help from a licensed mental health therapist so you can get the benefits of an emotional support animal the right way.
Get started today ― Take our free ESA assessment to see if you might qualify to speak to one of our therapists!