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Emotional Support Pets

A growing number of Americans are living with one or more mental, emotional, or psychological disabilities, and for many, seeking proper and effective treatment is an ongoing journey. Many people find that an emotional support pet (or ESA) can provide measurable comfort and aid, helping them regain a sense of independence and improve their overall quality of life. At Service Pet Verified, we are proud to provide to play a smart part in enabling so many people to change their lives for the better with an emotional support animal. If you’re interested in learning more about how an emotional support animal may help you enhance your quality of life, we’ve created a useful guide to provide everything you need to know about ESAs, including how to get an official ESA letter, your ESA rights, where you can take your ESA, and more.

What is an Emotional Support Animal?

An Emotional Support Animal (ESA), may also be referred to as an assistance animal or support animal. An ESA is a designated companion animal that fulfills an emotional need for a personal dealing with a diagnosed mental, emotional, or psychological disability. Typically, an emotional support animal alleviates the symptoms of a specific mental or emotional condition by providing comfort, companionship, and affection. Many people find that caring for their emotional support animal also provides the benefit of structure in their daily routine, further improving their well being. In order to be considered an ESA, the owner and animal must have the proper documentation provided by a licensed mental health professional or doctor.

Types of Emotional Support Animals

The most common types of emotional support animals are dogs and cats, but there are no specific requirements outlined by ESA laws. However, it’s important to understand that in some situations, your emotional support animal may be excluded from legal protections if it is too large, a specific type of animal, or physically aggressive.

How is an Emotional Support Animal Different from a Service Animal?

Service animals and emotional support animals not only differ in definition but also the way they are categorized according to various laws and regulations.

Service Animal

A service animal undergoes specific training and certification and performs a specific set of duties and tasks for their owner. For example, a seeing eye dog provides physical guidance and other duties to a vision-impaired owner. Keep in mind, the cost of training can be very costly. Costs can be as high as $15,000 for training over a two year period.

Emotional Support Animal

In contrast, an emotional support animal does not undergo any type of specific training and is not responsible for carrying out certain tasks. Instead, the animal provides support and comfort through simple companionship and affection.

Psychiatric Service Dogs

Many people confuse emotional support animals with psychiatric service dogs, which are trained to do certain tasks that help their owner effectively cope with a mental illness. For example, a psychiatric service dog might be responsible for reminding their owner to take their daily prescribed medication. Or, a person who suffers from dissociative episodes as a symptom of their mental illness may have a psychiatric service dog to prevent them from dangerous situations when they are disoriented. A psychiatric service dog may provide benefits through companionship, much like an emotional support animal, but it is also trained to do certain jobs as well.

What Qualifies You for an Emotional Support Animal?

If you have an emotional or mental condition that you believe would be improved with the companionship of an emotional support animal, you may qualify. Here are just a few examples of the many professionally-diagnosed conditions that may enable you to obtain an emotional support animal:
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Learning disabilities
  • Depression
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
  • Mood disorders
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
  • Panic disorders
  • Fears/phobias
You can ask a licensed mental health professional or doctor about recommending an emotional support animal for your needs, and he or she will evaluate your case and provide their professional opinion.

How to Get an Emotional Support Animal (ESA) Letter

An Emotional Support Animal (ESA) Letter will serve as the required documentation for protecting your rights under ESA laws. You may also hear it referred to as an emotional support animal prescription or comfort animal letter. If you’re interested in obtaining an ESA Letter, here’s what you need to know:
  • An approved ESA Letter can only be provided by a licensed mental health professional or doctor
  • An ESA Letter must be printed on the health provider’s official letterhead
  • The letter should state that you have a diagnosed mental condition, as well as explain that your emotional support animal is important to your well-being as related to your condition
  • The letter must be signed and dated by your mental health care professional or doctor, and include their license number and the date it was issued
An Emotional Support Animal (ESA) Letter is valid from one year of the date of issue, at which point it will need to be renewed. In certain situations, you might need to request specific information be included in your ESA Letter, such as the type, breed, and weight of your ESA animal.

Can My Pet Become an Emotional Support Animal?

Unlike certified service dogs, emotional support pets don’t require professional certification and training. This means that your future emotional support animal might just be a pet you already consider a furry family member. If your pet provides emotional support and comfort in a way that helps you deal with the symptoms of your mental, emotional, or psychological condition, they can become your emotional support animal. You’ll simply need an Emotional Support Animal (ESA) Letter. While your ESA does not need to complete specific training, it’s important that he or she can behave properly in public around people and animals.

How Do I Get an Emotional Support Animal?

If you don’t currently have a pet that you would like designated as an emotional support animal, there’s not necessarily a specific place to adopt an ESA. Because ESA Letters are issued to a specific human, in contrast to the service animal certifications that are provided to a certain animal, there aren’t places that provide ESA-specific adoptions. That being said, there are a few good characteristics to look for if you’re hoping to adopt an animal to become your ESA. Ideally, the animal will be friendly, easy to train, calm, and affectionate. Aggressive animals do not usually make good emotional support animals, because they can be challenging to handle in public environments.

Do I Need to Complete Emotional Support Animal Certification?

No. There is no specific comfort animal certification program or requirements for emotional support animals. You may see online advertisements for websites that claim to offer certification or entry into a government database. However, at this time, there is no such this as a national or state government database for emotional support animals, nor is there companion animal certification of any kind.

Do I Need a Vest for My Emotional Support Animal?

No, but they are helpful. It’s much easier and recognizable to have your pet wear a vest rather than continuously having to pull out your documentation. You do not need an ESA vest, harness, uniform, or identification card. However, you may find it helpful to keep some form of documentation on hand when you’re planning to bring your ESA to a public place. Note that in certain situations, such as air travel, you will need to supply an ESA Letter at minimum and, potentially, a specialized letter required by the airline company, signed by a healthcare professional or doctor.

Can I Have Multiple Emotional Support Animals?

Technically, there’s no regulation that limits you to only one emotional support animal. However, a licensed mental health professional or doctor will need to provide a valid recommendation that states that multiple ESAs are vital to your wellbeing. If you believe you need multiple emotional support animals, you should know that the requirements for each individual animal do not change. You will still need to complete the proper procedure and obtain documentation for each ESA.

Can I Take My Emotional Support Animal Anywhere?

Because emotional support animals are legally categorized differently than service animals, they do not necessarily have the same rights. Keep in mind that most business owners are going to be more accepting of well behaved verified emotional support animals. But, they still have the right to deny entry. This means that you may not be able to take your emotional support animal anywhere, including restaurants, hotels, and private businesses. However, if you clearly communicate with owners and managers of various establishments, you may find they are willing to do their best to accommodate you and your ESA. Despite the fact that you may encounter certain limits on where you can bring your ESA, there are laws that protect your rights in specific situations.

Understanding the Laws for Emotional Support Animals

Emotional support animals are covered by a variety of laws, including those pertaining to housing and travel. If you’re planning to have an emotional support animal, educating yourself on basic companion animal regulations is a good way to prepare. Here are the primary laws that address or include ESA rights in some way, shape, or form:

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act

Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act makes it unlawful for any program that receives federal financial assistance to discrimination against disabled persons. In 1988, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) passed specific regulations under this statute, which state that no disabled individual can be excluded from a program or activity that receives federal funding. Section 504 is typically applied in the context of public housing, prohibiting public housing authorities to deny housing to someone based only on their disability. Additionally, if a reasonable accommodation can be made in order to provide housing for a disabled person, then the landlord or property manager must do so. This means that an exception to any “no pets” policies is required if the person seeking the accommodation meets specific requirements. For ESA owners, this means that they cannot be denied public housing solely because of their emotional support animal.

Fair Housing Act Amendments

The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing for reasons of disability, race, religion, national origin, color, sex, or familial status. Under the FHA, anyone seeking to buy or rent a home, obtain a mortgage, or qualify for housing assistance cannot be discriminated against based on these factors. Both public and private housing is subject to the FHA, and additional protections are placed upon federally-assisted housing. Certain types of housing can be exempt from the FHA, such as owner-occupied buildings (with four or less units), private members-only clubs, religious housing, and single-family homes rented or sold without an agent. Interestingly, the original FHA did not include provisions for disabled persons, but a 1988 amendment made the important change. Today, the HUD is responsible for enforcing the FHA and all amendments. If you have an emotional support animal, you are included in the FHA protections. In addition to preventing you from renting or buying a property, these prohibit a landlord or property owner from imposing different terms or conditions based on a disability and possession of an ESA. The HUD requires a housing provider to ask the following two questions when faced with a request for housing that includes an emotional support animal:
  1. Does the person have a disability?
  2. Does the person have a need (related to their disability) for an emotional service animal?
If the answer to both questions is “yes,” then the FHA requires that the housing provider makes reasonable accommodations for the ESA, even if the property has a “no pets” policy. The concept of “reasonable accommodation” means that if allowing your ESA would put undue financial stress or administrative burden on the housing provider, they can deny the request. Additionally, if you are seeking approval for an exceptionally large ESA, such as a horse or llama, they can legally refuse as well.

Americans with Disabilities Act

The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) prevents discrimination against disabled individuals in all aspects of public life, such as employment, education, transportation, and both public and private places that are accessible by the general public. While the ADA does include provisions for service animals, it’s important to understand that emotional support animals do not currently fall under this category. Because ESAs are not specifically trained to perform a specific job for a disabled owner, they do not have the same rights as service animals. For example, unlike a service animal, and ESA can be denied admission to a public place. However, ESAs are included in some portions of the ADA, specifically those that address reasonable accommodation and housing. Under Title II of the ADA, EDA owners must be provided with reasonable housing accommodations (regardless of “no pet” policies), and are protected from pet policy deposits and fees.

Air Carrier Access Act

The Air Carrier Access Act was approved in 1990 and works in conjunction with Department of Transportation rules to ban any discrimination against disabled persons traveling by air. According to the ACAA, an airline cannot refuse or limit transportation based on your disability, which includes a requirement to accommodate emotional support animals that supply sufficient documentation. Under the ACAA, you have the right to bring your emotional support animal in the main airline cabin, without incurring additional charges. The airline cannot require you to sit in a specific seat or zone of the cabin unless your ESA is so large that they would block the aisle otherwise. Generally, your ESA will be able to sit on the floor of the plane (under your seat), on your lap, or on a seat next to you. However, there are limitations to what is permitted under the ACAA. Airlines are never required to allow reptiles, rodents, spiders, or sugar gliders on a plan, and they reserve the right to limit each passenger to one emotional support animal. Your ESA cannot be disruptive while on the plane and absolutely cannot pose a threat to the safety of other passengers and airline employees. It’s also important to understand that if you are planning to fly internationally with your ESA, you may be subject to specific regulations and laws surrounding foreign animals, regardless of ESA status.

Let Support Pets Help You with All Your ESA Needs

At Support Pets, we understand that an emotional support animal can be a life-changing addition to many people’s lives. That’s why we offer a simple, hassle-free route for getting your ESA Letter, and provide a growing library of resources to help you learn about ESAs. If you’re interested in learning more about how to qualify for a companion animal, we invite you to take our instant qualification quiz by clicking the button below!

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