Do emotional support animals enjoy the same privileges as a service animal? This is one of the most common questions we receive here at therapypets.org, and we see a lot of people get it wrong. The simple answer is no, emotional support animals do not enjoy the same privileges as a service animal. At least, not from a legal standpoint, and not all the time.
There is some overlap between the privileges of a service animal and an emotional support animal. The main difference is that emotional support animals are not usually found under ADA guidelines, which is what many businesses and housing facilities use to determine a disabled individual’s rights.
For such a complex topic, it is important to dive deeper under the surface to understand exactly what to expect when you have an emotional support animal and what limitations you may face when integrating your animal into your everyday life.
Here is more on the topic of privileges given to emotional support animals.
Let us start with the basics of emotional support animals to better understand their privileges. By definition, an emotional support animal is “any animal prescribed by a therapist or similar licensed professional to improve the mental health of an individual.”
Emotional support animals are not trained to do any special tasks. Rather, their sole purpose is to provide comfort to an individual that experiences symptoms like anxiety, depression, PTSD, or other conditions that may prevent them from living a full life on a daily basis.
For example, someone with an extreme fear of leaving their home may find it difficult to hold a steady job or participate in daily activities. An emotional support animal may give them confidence and reduce feelings of stress, thus allowing them to move forward with life.
The bond between humans and animals is unmistakably powerful. Even individuals that don’t suffer from mental health symptoms may find it therapeutic to be in the company of animals. Animals have been shown to reduce stress, ease feelings of loneliness, increase happiness, and even encourage us to move around and exercise.
For individuals that suffer from mental health disorders, these benefits are amplified.
One could argue that an emotional support animal provides a very valuable service to its owner. However, the legal definition of service animal does not align with that of an emotional support animal. The two are considered to be different things with different purposes.
This is due to several factors:
For starters, not just any animal can be a service animal. Currently, legal service animals are limited to dogs and miniature ponies only. This is not the case for emotional support animals, however. Just about any domestic pet can be considered an emotional support animal as long as you have an ESA letter from a licensed professional. This includes dogs, cats, birds, pigs, small rodents, horses, and goats, to name a few.
Also, every service animal has undergone extensive training before they are considered a service animal. Service animals are trained to do specific tasks to assist its owner with daily living. This could be training to fetch a cellphone in case of a medical emergency, help a blind person cross the street, retrieve a dropped item, or alert an individual in the event of an alarm, among many other tasks.
By comparison, an emotional support animal does not receive any training. Their value lies in their presence. By simply providing companionship and love, the emotional support animal has fulfilled its purpose.
That said, you can train an emotional support dog to perform some tricks that will make their companionship more valuable. For example, if you want your dog’s company while watching a movie, you might train him or her to jump onto the couch when prompted with a treat. Or, you could train your dog to respond when you are having an anxiety attack. Training is not a requirement of an emotional support animal, but it is for a service animal.
This difference in training is one of the main reasons why emotional support animals do not receive the same privileges as a service animal.
Not to be confused with service animals, therapy animals are another class of animal that’s often compared to emotional support animals. Similar to emotional support animals, therapy animals provide comfort to individuals. They are often used in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and other similar settings and visit a range of people or patients at once.
Therapy dogs require training like service dogs, but the focus of this training is vastly different. Rather than learning to perform tasks, therapy dogs largely focus on socialization and interacting with people. Also, while petting a service animal is off limits, therapy dogs welcome petting.
While an emotional support animal offers service to their owner, a therapy dog is shared by its owner with others. They might be used to help disabled children learn how to read or encourage patients going through physical therapy after an accident, for example.
In addition, therapy dogs must receive certification and be registered as a therapy dog. These are not requirements for emotional support animals, nor is there an option to certify or register an emotional support animal.
Any animal that can be a pet can technically be an emotional support animal. For some individuals, their emotional support animal will be the pet they already own prior to receiving their ESA letter. For others, they may prefer to select a new pet after receiving an ESA letter.
Because emotional support animals do not have to undergo special training, certification, or registration, getting an emotional support animal is relatively easy. What you really need is an ESA letter.
An ESA letter is like a medical prescription from a licensed professional. This letter states the provider’s recommendation for an emotional support animal based on their assessment of your mental health and the presence of a disability that might be alleviated or improved with the presence of an animal.
To get an ESA letter, you will need to get in touch with your current therapist or similar licensed professional. If you are not currently getting treatment for a mental health condition, therapypet.org can put you in touch with a licensed professional that will help determine your eligibility and write your ESA letter. Our process is very simple and can usually deliver an ESA letter to you in as little as 72 hours. All conversations remain confidential and your ESA letter will never reveal specific details about your disability.
Once you have your ESA letter in hand, you can claim your current or future pet as an emotional support animal. You will use your letter to obtain housing privileges, airline privileges, and possibly other privileges as needed. You will not need to register or certify your pet as an emotional support animal, as your ESA letter should handle all requirements.
Even though emotional support animals are not the same as service animals, they do enjoy a couple of the same privileges.
The most important and notable one is regarding housing. Owners of emotional support animals have certain rights when it comes to staying in places that typically have a no pets policy or otherwise charge additional fees for having a pet. With an ESA letter, your landlord is obligated to allow your ESA to live with you without charging pet fees.
The exception here is that you will be responsible for any damage to the property caused by your pet and may have to pay for a cleaning fee or other repairs when you move out.
Under the Fair Housing Act, ESA rights for homeowners or renters also include planned communities where there is an HOA that might have certain breed restrictions or pet policies.
For emotional support animals, the housing complex or community must allow the animal to visit any place where their human owner visits. This includes inside the dwelling, as well as common areas like a multipurpose facility for residents where the average pet may not be allowed.
Tenants asking for a reasonable accommodation for an emotional support animal should not expect an unreasonable delay. Landlords may wish to collect more information before granting an accommodation; however, taking months to do so could be legally seen as a constructive denial. There is no pre-defined time frame that landlords must abide by, however.
By law, a landlord or HOA cannot place restrictions on breed when it comes to emotional support animals. Instead, they must consider the specific animal in question and its behaviors and potential risk of causing a safety concern.
If there is a concern, the landlord must substantiate their claim with evidence and not use their own fears or experiences with a certain type of animal or breed. Accommodations are made on a case by case basis.
Your ESA letter should be all the information your landlord needs. At no time are you required to disclose details about your disability or medical details to the landlord, nor are they allowed to ask. For more information, see HUD’s statement on disclosure of disability details.
It used to be until very recently that emotional support animals were guaranteed to the same privileges as service animals on commercial flights. However, the US Department of Transportation ruled in December 2020 that airlines no longer had to treat emotional support animals the same way they do service animals. After this ruling, many major airlines announced that emotional support animals would follow the same protocols as pets, which could mean paying additional fees and/or crating the pet.
However, not all airlines have changed their policies. Some airlines still allow emotional support animals to travel with their owners onboard the aircraft without additional fees. It’s best to check with your airline about their specific policies before booking a ticket or planning a trip.
By law, service animals are allowed to go anywhere their owner goes, even when other animals are not allowed. The same cannot always be said for emotional support animals, but many still enjoy some of these same privileges.
For example, in some cases you might be able to bring your emotional support animal into a retail store, a supermarket, church, your place of work, or another business that’s open to the public. Doing so is not a guarantee, however, as businesses have the right to deny your animal entry.
Some places have no problem with you bringing an emotional support animal with you. Many will do this as a courtesy to their customers. In fact, many may not even realize you’ve brought along an animal companion in the first place. If you have a common type of emotional support animal, such as a dog, you may face fewer limitations on where you can bring them without question.
The only real privilege to expect with an emotional support animal is regarding housing. Outside of housing, it is not reasonable to expect any other special treatment. While some privileges may be available to you, they are by no means a 100% guarantee every time.
In other words, it is best to request an accommodation but understand that it might not be accepted.
Bringing your emotional support animal to work is at the discretion of your employer. This would be considered a request for accommodation. In some settings, such as an office that isn’t open to the public, this might be a reasonable accommodation to make. In other settings, such as a busy and dangerous manufacturing floor, it might not be in the animal’s best interest to be in the workplace.
Employers may request information about how the emotional support animal helps you perform in your role, especially since many mental health conditions are invisible to the casual observer. They may also want to know how the animal is trained to behave in a work environment. If the animal poses a potential threat or safety risk, they may be rightfully excluded from the workplace.
While you are not required to disclose any personal medical details to your employer, you might appeal to them by noting that having an emotional support animal might make a difference in your work. See if they might be willing to try letting your animal attend work on a trial basis. This will give your employer a chance to see how well-behaved your animal is and also the positive impact it has on your work life.
In general, emotional support animals have been shown to increase confidence, self esteem, comfort, and even social skills. Your employer might see it as a good investment!
There is nothing in ADA guidelines that says a student can bring an emotional support animal to school. Rather, ADA guidelines focus mostly on service animals, and emotional support animals do not fit the definition of a service animal.
However, a school may choose to grant an emotional support animal access to the classroom as a reasonable accommodation to a student. These decisions are typically made on a case by case basis and are not guaranteed.
Students and their parents, counselors, therapists, or other licensed professionals may strengthen their request by providing documentation about the presence of a mental disability and how a support animal can benefit their learning experience.
If you have ever shopped at a retail store and come across someone pushing a dog in a shopping cart, you might wonder whether that dog was a service animal or an emotional support animal, or even someone’s pet. The truth is, it could have been any of the above.
Some stores are just more friendly toward animals than others. It is becoming more common to find restaurants that allow dogs on their outdoor patio. Many pet stores will allow you to bring your pet shopping with you, too.
But you should never expect a retail store to allow your emotional support animal to accompany you on your shopping trip. Your emotional support animal does not have the same protections or privileges as a bona fide service animal. The store owner and their employees have the right to ask you to take your emotional support animal outside if it goes against their policy, even if you have an ESA letter.
However, you might find that your emotional support animal is welcome in more places (or not even noticed in the first place) if you follow these guidelines:
These guidelines are not a guarantee, either. But you may find that they can bring less attention to your animal and put the people around you at ease. Both of these things may help you to enjoy more privileges with your support animal.
If you are staying at a pet-friendly hotel, then simply letting the hotel know you’re bringing an animal may be all you need to do. If they want to charge a pet fee, however, you may provide them with an ESA letter to potentially avoid paying the fee.
However, the hotel is not obligated under any legal guidelines to waive the fee. An emotional support animal is not the same as a service animal and therefore cannot expect to enjoy the same privileges at hotels.
If you are staying at a hotel that typically does not allow pets, then you will need to provide the hotel with your ESA letter. Some hotels may be willing to make this reasonable accommodation for you, but not all hotels will. Some hotels may treat your request on a case by case basis. Under no circumstances are they allowed to ask you to reveal medical details about your disability. Still, they can deny your request to bring along an emotional support animal per their policy.
If you want to take advantage of guaranteed and potential privileges of an emotional support animal, you will first need an ESA letter.
Think of an ESA letter like a prescription from your doctor or therapist. Rather than prescribing you a medication, they are prescribing you with an emotional support animal as part of your overall treatment.
An ESA letter is all the proof that you should need to allow your emotional support animal to live with you and travel with you on your property if you are renting or live in a community with specific guidelines.
For example, let’s say you are applying to rent a new apartment that typically does not allow pets. You can furnish your ESA letter to the landlord to let them know that you have an emotional support Animal. By definition, an emotional support animal is not the same thing as a pet. With this letter, your landlord can grant you reasonable accommodation by allowing your animal to live with you and enjoy the same parts of the property that you do.
By no means is this letter a registration or certification for a specific animal to serve as your emotional support animal.
Getting an ESA letter is a fairly simple and straightforward process. We recommend starting with your current therapist or mental healthcare provider. He or she can conduct an assessment of your mental conditions to see if you are eligible for an emotional support animal. Based on their findings, they can write an ESA letter for you to use in your housing situation, as well as potential privileges like traveling, shopping, and working.
If you are not currently getting treatment for your mental health conditions, you can still get a valid ESA letter. Therapypet.org connects you to a licensed therapist that will conduct an evaluation to determine your eligibility. This assessment is completely free of charge to you. If your therapist determines that you may benefit from an emotional support animal, he or she can provide you with a valid ESA letter as documentation.
ESA letters are written on the provider’s official letterhead and include their contact information, the date the letter was issued, their signature, and statements regarding their assessment and recommendations for using an emotional support animal. The entire process remains confidential and at no time does your letter express any medical details regarding your disability. Letters are shipped to you within 72 hours of confirmation.
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