Having a pet can be an amazingly enriching experience that just makes life better. Unfortunately, not everyone understands the emotional and health benefits that can result simply from having an animal by your side. Emotional support animal certification allows people with certain difficulties and disabilities to enjoy a heightened level of protection for their relationship with their pets. Though there are some legal protections for emotional support animals (ESAs), these animals are not in the same class as service dogs, which aren’t considered pets. Learn more about what an emotional support animal is, what it means to get ESA certification, and what your rights are after you obtain this credential.
What is an Emotional Support Animal?
An emotional support animal is a non-human animal that provides companionship and comfort for its human owner or handler. While everyone gets some degree of comfort and joy from their pets, emotional support animals have an extra special meaning to their humans. Without even knowing it or having to do anything special, ESAs help people with life-limiting disabilities or post-traumatic stress disorders feel more comfortable and improve mental health on a daily basis.
The definition of “life-limiting disability” with respect to an emotional support animal is generous and allows people with a variety of different limitations to benefit from some legal protections and a special status. Your pet may already be assisting you as an emotional support animal without any formal designation. If you feel social anxiety in regular social situations but are calmed by the presence of your pet, for example, that pet is already serving in an ESA capacity for you. People suffering from chronic depression who rely on their pets to help them get out of bed and regulate their schedules are also benefitting from the scientifically-proven support an animal can provide.
ESA certification, then, is simply a formal recognition that a disabled person’s pet does more than simply amuse them or keep them company, it is more of an assistance animal. It’s a way of allowing people with emotional and psychiatric difficulties to move more freely in the world without debilitating discomfort or maladaptive reactions to everyday situations. When your pet receives formal ESA recognition, your relationship with this animal is more formalized from a legal perspective, though it’s important to understand the difference between ESAs and service dogs.
First and foremost, ESAs are pets. If your pet isn’t trained to physically assist you in overcoming or managing your disability, it is considered a companion animal by most legal and social definitions. This doesn’t mean your pet isn’t important to you. But it does mean that your pet isn’t granted the same status as, say, a dog trained to move its handler into a safe position during a seizure or a miniature horse trained to guide its blind handler around busy city streets.
Emotional Support Animal vs. Psychiatric Service Dog
Getting more specific, emotional support animals are, as the name implies, recognized as a vital component in a person’s emotional health, which has been recognized by mental health professionals. Not just anyone can qualify for an ESA given this requirement. You have to have some sort of disorder, disability or health issue that has a serious impact on your life, preventing you from performing ordinary tasks, holding a job or engaging in healthy social activity. Because ESAs aren’t trained to do any particular work relating to your disability or life limitation, most of the conditions these animals are certified to address are psychological or emotional in nature.
ESAs are not the only animals granted legal protection for emotional and psychological difficulties or disabilities. Psychiatric service dogs are the working dog equivalent of an ESA. The difference is that psychiatric service dogs perform the kinds of physical tasks that seriously disabled people cannot perform on their own. A person with PTSD who has a service dog trained to them up during a nightmare or sit on their lap during a panic attack should apply for psychiatric service dog status rather than classifying their animal as an ESA. Conversely, a person with PTSD who benefits from the need to take their dog for a walk every few hours and feels more comfortable out in public with a dog by their side should seek ESA status. ESAs are pets, while psychiatric service dogs are working dogs.
What Animals Count as Emotional Support Animals?
You may notice that, in the paragraphs above, we said “service dog” and “support animal.” The Americans With Disabilities Act, the landmark law that defines most of the rights and protections granted to physically and psychologically disabled Americans, states that only dogs can be granted service animal status, though some recent allowances have been made for trained miniature horses. These are the only two animals that can achieve service animal status. Even if you train your cat to fetch medication for you in the event of a seizure, you cannot currently say that you officially have a psychiatric service cat.
There are no such restrictions on which animals can be classified as ESAs. You can have an emotional support cat, an emotional support dog, an emotional support turtle, bird, snake, tarantula, ferret, chicken, pig, donkey, or squirrel. Even fish count as emotional support animals, though traveling around with your tetras might not be such a great idea.
The point is, though, that there isn’t a lot of specific legal definition relating to emotional support animals. That’s both a good and a bad thing, as you’ll see in this article. Part of the good is that even unusual animals can count as ESAs, though taking a penguin or kangaroo with you in public places may attract unwanted attention. That’s something to think about if you don’t already have an emotional support pet and are planning to get one. If you have social anxiety or other social phobias and limitations, bringing an attention-getting animal into a public space might not actually help to soothe your discomfort.
Additionally, you should consider your pet’s comfort and safety as well. Part of the reason why an emotional support fish might not be a great idea is that transporting a tank can be quite difficult, and fish often experience health issues as a result of stress. A pet who is as scared in public spaces as you are likely isn’t the best choice to help you come out of your shell and feel more comfortable in public. Likewise, if you feel stress when your pet acts up or if you feel unable to control or train your pet, that’s something to think about when considering whether ESA status is right for you. The goal of this certification is to provide greater comfort and freedom for you, not to add another element of worry into your life.
One final thing to consider is that emotional support animals must be well behaved. If you have a puppy that is currently going through a rebellious phase, you might want to wait until after it has calmed down a bit to obtain ESA certification, or at least make a serious effort to calm the behavior with proper training at this stage. ESAs don’t necessarily need to have the stoic, zenlike focus of a service dog, but they should behave in a professional manner.
Where Can I Go With My ESA?
ESA certification opens a lot of doors for people with emotional support animals. However, there are some important limitations that you must understand in order to avoid stressful situations in the future.
In most cases, you cannot just take an ESA with you wherever you go. Some businesses may grant some leniency to a well-behaved ESA as a courtesy, but they can’t go anywhere a guide dog or other service dog can go. If you walk into a store with a poorly-behaved ESA, for example, store management or ownership can legally ask you to leave without facing charges of discrimination or violating a law in most jurisdictions.
If you want to bring your ESA to work with you, you’ll need to get in touch with your boss or HR and find out what proof they need to allow your animal to come to work with you. This can be tricky because emotional support animals are not protected by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) (see below). Even ADA-recognized service dogs aren’t necessarily required to be allowed in a workplace, as the ADA simply states that employers must make “reasonable accommodations” for disabled people. If the accommodation interferes with an individual’s ability to do his or her job, they aren’t protected by the ADA. This means that ESAs are even more at risk for exclusion from the workplace, especially if they are a distraction.
However, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) does have rules in place that allow people to bring ESAs into the workplace. Employers who can’t tell why you need the animal or see what function the animal performs do have the right to request documentation confirming that the animal’s presence in your life is a medical necessity. This is what the ESA certification letter is for.
You can also rent an apartment or home with an ESA, even if the landlord says no pets. Anti-discrimination laws also make it possible for most people to take an ESA with on an airplane. Some medical clinics and other professional offices may also set their own rules about whether a service animal is allowed in the building. You’ll have the most success in going places with your ESA if he or she is well-behaved and doesn’t disturb other people or cause problems for the business or property owner. If your animal acts like a working professional, you’ll get fewer questions and more tolerance than you will with an animal that draws a lot of attention for the wrong reasons.
Public transportation and public education settings are a bit trickier to navigate and rules for these situations are usually set by individual transportation bureaus and school districts. Hotels and other private settings may also have specific rules that vary from place to place. Do not assume that a business or institution that’s welcoming of service dogs is welcoming of ESAs as well. The two categories are completely different. When in doubt, check before you arrive to avoid stressful or embarrassing situations.
Requirements for ESA Certification
As mentioned above, you need to have a diagnosable disability in order to obtain certification for an ESA. “I want to be able to take my dog on the plane with me for free” is not a diagnosable disability. Chronic depression, bipolar disorder, phobia, anxiety, emotion regulation and personality disorders are all examples of life-limiting conditions that can be debilitating and seriously impact your quality of life.
Even phobias that are very specific and limited but keep you from experiencing a necessary part of life can count, including a fear of flying. If you feel perfectly safe and calm in every other situation but can honestly say that you experience anxiety or panic attacks while traveling on an airplane, you can qualify for ESA certification.
Phobias that don’t really impact your everyday life usually don’t qualify. The health issue in question has to present a limitation to your ability to live a normal life. A fear of clowns isn’t likely to count, for example, unless you can make a reasonable argument that your quality of life is being substantially and directly impacted by this phobia and that the presence of an animal could allow you to overcome it. If, however, a clown college takes up residence across the street from your house that could well justify the presence of an ESA in your home. In this case, it makes sense that you’d need your dog’s calming presence to help you walk out your door regardless of the physical manifestation of your fears across the street.
What Information is Listed on My ESA Letter?
Medical privacy laws do apply to emotional support dog certification. In most cases, you are not legally required to divulge the underlying condition that justifies your certification, and you also do not need to fully explain your relationship with the medical professional who issued the certificate. Your ESA letter, therefore, does not have to provide exhaustive detail about why you obtained the certification and how.
All the letter really needs to say in order to be effective is that a licensed medical professional has evaluated you and determined that you meet the disability requirements that justify the prescription of an emotional support animal. Most organizations want to see that the letter is written on official letterhead and shows a clear date on which the letter is written.
The letter does not and, in fact, should not state what your specific condition is and the person who asks to see your letter, even in an official capacity, does not have the legal right to know this information. Some airlines and other organizations might want to know that you do legitimately suffer from a recognized disability, but they don’t need to know which specific one. Your medical history is between you and your doctor or therapist, not a random airport employee or prospective landlord. Keeping this information to yourself can help lessen anxiety and reduce the chances of discrimination, so don’t feel uncomfortable about refusing to share this information. It is your right to keep your healthcare concerns private.
What to Do With Your ESA Letter
Once you get your signed emotional support animal letter, keep a hard copy on hand in an easily accessible file. You may also want to keep an electronic copy on your phone as an email attachment or in a photo as backup proof in case you’re questioned while you’re out and about. You can laminate your letter if you wish, but this isn’t necessary.
There is no formal registry for emotional support animals, so you need to take responsibility for keeping track of your letter as proof of your certification status. ESA letters are valid for one year. You must renew your certification in order to stay current. If your landlord or employer keeps a copy of your letter on file, you should be proactive and provide a new one before it expires so you can stay current. We make renewal easy, so this should be a simple requirement to stay on top of.
Does My Emotional Support Animal Need a Vest?
Many people wonder whether they need some sort of outward display that indicates their dogs is an emotional support animal. We’ll discuss this further below, but emotional support animals are not legally protected in the same way guide dogs and other service animals are. Emotional support animals are pets. They aren’t working dogs. So, you aren’t required to put a vest or badge on your emotional support animal, though some people feel that this lends them an air of legitimacy. You can weigh whether or not you’d like to do this.
What You Need to Know About ESA Laws
Laws relating to emotional support animals can be a bit tricky to navigate. In the USA, federal law tends to carry the most weight with respect to determining what rights are granted human handlers of emotional support animals. There are no protections for ESA dogs and other animals under the ADA and this rule serves as a guide for most formal and informal standards in the United States. However, there are some important exceptions.
The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)
Emotional support animal laws can vary by jurisdiction because emotional support animals are not considered to be working service dogs according to the rules set by the ADA. The ADA is a 1990 law signed by President George H.W. Bush and it provides definitive civil rights protections to people with disabilities both physical and mental or intellectual. The use of service animals is covered by this law, which was a landmark piece of legislation that dramatically improved the lives of disabled citizens in the USA.
However, as we’ve seen, the ADA has a very specific definition of what a “service animal” is and is not. As defined above, an emotional support animal does not need to have special training. These animals are considered helpful companions and do not do any work for their humans other than lifting spirits, serving as welcome company and helping with day-to-day coping. Your dog has to do a specific job that an average dog off the street wouldn’t immediately be able to do in order to be considered a service dog under the ADA.
If you want the protection of the Americans with Disabilities Act, you’ll need to train your dog to perform specific tasks for you based on the specific disability you have. For example, if you have an anxiety disorder that causes you to have acute anxiety attacks brought on by the sense of insecurity you feel when you’re in a crowded space, your dog will need to be trained to recognize the signs of an anxiety attack and physically do something to assist you.
That could mean leading you to a quiet area or physically pushing you against a wall so you feel a sense of security. If you have a mental disorder that requires you to take medication, which you often forget to do, you could train your dog to stop whatever it is doing at the sound of an alarm and fetch your medication bottle to bring it to you. Individuals who engage in self-harm can have a service dog that pins their hands and physically prevents them from hurting themselves. In order to do this, a dog has to be trained to recognize the physical act that indicates self-harm and has to be large enough to interfere.
As you can tell, there’s a reason why most service dogs are large dogs from highly intelligent working or herding breeds, such as German shepherds, Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers. You don’t see many seeing eye Chihuahuas, and that’s mostly because these dogs are very small and aren’t bred to respond to training the way a working or herding dog is.
Part of what makes service animals so well protected under the ADA is that a working service dog isn’t really like a pet. These dogs don’t get distracted by toys and are specifically trained to put their needs second. They do tend to form extremely close bonds with their handlers/owners, and they do become important members of human families. But they usually can’t fully exercise free will the way a pet dog does. A service dog who gets distracted when guiding a blind person across the street or who freaks out when their handler has a panic attack isn’t able to do its job properly.
Because they aren’t covered by the ADA, emotional support animals are under no such restraints. Your emotional support dog can be a tiny teacup Chihuahua or a giant, slobbery Newfoundland. Your ESA doesn’t even have to be a dog, as we discussed above. They don’t have to have any special training though, as we’ll discuss below, it is important that your ESA is well behaved and doesn’t cause problems. Behavioral evaluations aren’t necessarily part of the ESA certification process, but good behavior may be an important part of protecting the ESA system.
The Fair Housing Act (FHA)
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) is part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, though disability-related provisions were added in 1988. This change to the FHA makes it so landlords cannot discriminate against prospective renters based on their disability status. People with certified ESAs are allowed to live with their animals and should not face discrimination based on size and breed restrictions. Landlords also can’t charge pet damage deposits for ESAs or service dogs.
This makes it a lot easier to find affordable housing in a safe and convenient location if you live with an ESA. However, whenever possible, you may want to find a sympathetic and understanding landlord. Though legally required to let you live in their buildings, resentful landlords who really don’t want animals on their properties may look for any other reason to harass or evict you.
Because ESAs are supposed to be well behaved, renters should be careful to make sure their certified support pet follows the rules your landlord sets, and you should also be careful to be courteous and take responsibility for your animal. If you don’t pick up after your pet during bathroom breaks on communal property, for example, you could be in violation of a local law or community rule that exposes you to the risk of eviction. The FHA does not provide unconditional protection. It simply protects disabled people from discrimination based on their disability alone.
The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA)
According to the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) of 1986, emotional support animals are allowed to fly in the cabin of commercial airplanes, though each airline may have their own rules and standards for how this plays out. Check with the airline before you buy your ticket and find out what you need to do and how you need to approach the issue on the day of your flight. Some airlines might be more flexible than others.
Anti-discrimination laws outlined by the ACAA mean that airlines can’t charge a fee for ESAs to travel in the cabin of an airplane. However, as with the FHA, your pet’s behavior matters, as does yours. Interfering with a flight crew is not allowed and can even be against the law. This interference doesn’t have to be intentional. ESA status gets you through the door without discrimination or unfair fees, but it doesn’t protect you from the standards and rules that apply to any passenger.
This is another circumstance in which it really pays to consider the animal you’re choosing to task with the responsibility of serving as your ESA. Dogs who howl with fear and lash out with fear aggression whenever they’re in the car should not ride on airplanes. Be fair to your pet and think about their comfort. Work with your ESA prior to your plane trip to find out what soothing distractions work for him or her. Go to the airport ahead of time to do some training and get familiar with the noises and smells in that space.
The issue of poorly trained and managed ESAs on commercial flights has become somewhat controversial and news articles at least seem to reflect a growing concern that the ESA program is being abused by people who just want to get their pet a free flight on an airplane. This may mean that some airline employees or passengers are skeptical of or even hostile to the idea of emotional support animals. Your certification does grant you certain rights, but it’s important to act in accordance to accepted standards of behavior even with the protection the ACAA grants you.
The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
This is another law from 1990 that relates to the civil rights of disabled people. The IDEA law states that non-ADA compliant animals should be allowed into public K-12 education settings in the USA so long as school administrators are made aware and the animal is incorporated into an individual education plan for the child. Rules for private schools and public or private colleges and universities may differ. Again, checking before you arrive with your animal is your best bet for ensuring a pleasant and comfortable experience for both you and your pet.
Protecting ESA Laws
One of the most important things you can do to ensure that ESA laws stay in effect is to never, ever abuse the system. Additionally, you should take responsibility for your animal’s behavior and understand that you are being granted a special right based on your condition, a right that some people are eager to take away. For better or for worse, federal laws can change, and if people abuse the ESA rights we’re granted by laws such as the FHA and ACAA, the public tide against this system could turn. When that happens, politicians tend to respond.
As with all rights, the right to keep an ESA comes with certain responsibilities. Getting your animal certified is a big part of that responsibility. It shows that you are serious and aren’t simply looking for an excuse to bring your pet with you wherever you go. Beyond that, there are some extra steps you may want to consider in order to be a good steward and representative of this program.
One, you should consider whether your animal is up to the task of serving as your ESA in a public setting. If you have a dog or cat who is very fearful of strangers and tends to bite or scratch when approached by someone it doesn’t know, this animal is likely not a good candidate to be an ESA. You may be able to obtain certification, but doing so may be unfair to your pet. ESA certification does not necessarily protect you from any liability with respect to personal or property damage outside of the specific settings protected by law as described above. Think carefully about whether your animal will be safe and happy in public settings.
If your pet isn’t currently a good candidate, it doesn’t mean that it never will be. Good behavioral training can make a world of difference in how your ESA behaves. Proper socialization, a good routine, and a solid relationship that allows you to understand your pet’s behavior is a great foundation for successful stewardship of the ESA program.
Your ESA should also be properly potty trained in public. If your ESA is posing a health hazard with its behavior, including having accidents in a public place, the rights and protections you enjoy may be void. Landlords don’t necessarily have to put up with tenants who let their pets defecate and urinate all over the carpet, for example.
Legal concerns aside, the potty-training issue is a major factor in public opinion about this program. Public opinion, in turn, usually has a major impact on the laws passed by Congress and approved by the president. If people see an ESA who is friendly, calm, well trained, and clean, they are much more likely to be supportive of the continuing protection provided by the FHA and ACAA. Strongly positive public opinion may even lead to the expansion of ESA protections by law.
Aside from being a good steward and fair beneficiary of these laws, you can also help to ensure the continuance and even expansion of ESA laws by becoming more aware of politics on both a local and national level. Some politicians have expressed interest in making changes to the ADA and not in a beneficial way that would expand the definitions and protections included in that law.
It may seem hard to believe, but there are politically motivated people who don’t think disabled people should have any special protections and want to repeal the ADA, FHA, ACAA, and IDEA entirely. People who are willing to strip rights from those in wheelchairs are probably not going to be very sympathetic to the concept of an ESA. Keep an eye and ear out for this and advocate for your legitimate medical needs by voting or writing to your existing representatives.
Knowledge is Power
Now that you know what an ESA is, how they’re certified, what your legal protections are and what potential issues you may face, you’re ready to decide whether this certification is right for you. Get in touch with us to learn more or start your free ESA assessment today to take the next step.