Everything You Need to Know About Emotional Support Animals

One topic that is growing in popularity among pet owners is the concept of an Emotional Support Animal or ESA. An ESA is a pet who is officially registered and recognized for providing a mental health care service for one or more individuals. While similar to service dogs that provide specific services, they are not required to provide physical services to qualify.

With this form of therapy gaining popularity, we understand that more and more people want to learn about the practice and get involved. This guide covers the basics including what pets qualify, what the rules are and how to get an emotional support animal for you or your family member.

The Basics of Animal Support Therapy

The concept of an emotional support animal is pretty simple. Some animals, particularly beloved pets, provide a level of comfort and stability for patients who suffer from certain mental health conditions. With the approval of a qualified mental health professional, a pet can be registered as an ESA. This means that the pet is part of that patient’s therapy and is to be treated similarly (but not exactly the same as) service dogs under federal law.

In the United States, this distinction allows a pet and their owner two advantages in the eyes of federal law. The first is that the pet is not considered a pet for housing concerns under the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA). This exempts the pet from restrictions such as “no pets allowed” or special pet rents and considerations.

The second major difference is that the pet can fly with its owner and is exempt from pet fees and considerations under the Air Carriers Access Act (ACAA). While airlines are still allowed to impose certain restrictions such as additional forms, they must provide similar treatment for ESAs as they do for service dogs.

Even though it is important to remember that ESAs and service dogs aren’t the same thing, these laws place ESAs in a completely different position compared to regular pets.

How to Register an Emotional Support Animal

In order to register an animal as an ESA, the owner or their legal guardian if they are under 18, must receive a letter from a licensed mental health professional. This can include licensed therapists, psychiatrists or other mental health providers. This letter acts like a prescription and proves legally that the animal is an ESA and is therefore protected. Typically, apartment complexes, landlords or airlines would request a copy of this letter proving the relationship.

There are a number of mental health conditions which can benefit from an ESA. The letter of registration must cite and include the condition as well as the treatment. These conditions include:

  • Social Anxiety Disorder
  • Postpartum Depression
  • Depression
  • Phobias and Fears
  • Panic Disorder
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Restrictions and Things to Remember

Though ESAs are protected under the law, they are not given the same protections as disability service animals. These animals are the typical service dogs most people think about. Service dogs are those who help blind or low vision people, those that help handicapped people or dogs who serve in specific professional circumstances like military and police dogs.

These animals are given higher levels of protection by the law and are not meant to be equated to emotional support animals. Grocery stores, for example, are required to let in service dogs but are not required to let in ESAs, though they may at their discretion.

ESA law revolves primarily around housing and public transportation and is limited in other circumstances.

The Future of Mental Health Support

Mental healthcare is growing in public discourse and emotional support animals are a frequent topic of derision and disdain. Mental health professionals agree that emotional support animals have an impact and are an extremely viable form of treatment.

Unfortunately, there are those who take advantage of laws meant to assist those who need assistance. It is crucial to remember that an emotional support animal is not just a pet that you love very much. We understand that a pet is a part of your family. However, we strongly discourage attempting to register your pet as an ESA if you do not truly need it.

Cases of abuse in this space devalue those animals who provide true support and disenfranchise those who rely heavily on these animals. If you have questions or concerns about your pet or want help in dealing with healthcare issues through the use of an ESA, contact us today at Riverside Animal Hospital. Our experienced professionals can help connect you to those best equipped to help with this therapy.