Emotional Support Animal: Your Complete Guide

Emotional support animals are amazing companions to many individuals suffering from a range of mental health conditions or disabilities, but these comfort animals may be a confusing concept at first. If you are new to the concept of emotional support animals or are trying to explore more information before adding one of these wonderful animals to your care and treatment plan, our guide is here to help.

Below, we will give you essential information on what an emotional support animal is, how they help individuals, and an overview of your rights when it comes to living and going about your daily life with your emotional support animal.

What Is an Emotional Support Animal?

An emotional support animal (ESA) is an animal that provides comfort to their owner or the relief of certain symptoms of a mental health disability or condition via their presence in their owner’s life. Emotional support animals are not trained, but their consistency, support, and the bond they share with their owners help bring calmness and decrease stress, anxiety, or other symptoms related to a mental health condition.

Many individuals depend on being around their emotional support animal either at home, in public, or in the workplace to ensure they remain confident and calm as needed. For many people, their emotional support animal is a vital companion that greatly improves their day-to-day life.

Can Any Animal Be an Emotional Support Animal?

Any animal can be an ESA, from cats and dogs to snakes, birds, and hamsters. However, cats and dogs are the most popular choice for emotional support animals because they can be easily adopted and cared for. Cats and dogs are also easier to bring along when traveling or moving into a new residence, but if you have a bond with a different type of animal that you wish to act as your ESA, there are no restrictions on this.

Are Emotional Support Animals Different From Service Animals?

Emotional support animals are different from service animals, and it’s important to take note of this. Service animals are trained to perform specific tasks that are directly related to an individual’s disability. Service animals have widespread federal and state legal protections because of this, and service animals are legally allowed to enter any facility with their owner, even if that facility doesn’t typically allow animals.

On the other hand, emotional support animals are not trained to perform a specific type of task that is related to their owner’s mental health condition or disability. Their presence provides comfort, support, and relief, but they do not complete tasks and are not required to know any skills. Because of this, emotional support animals have different legal protections, and they are not permitted into public or private areas the same way that service animals are.

Is It Illegal to Misrepresent an Emotional Support Animal as a Service Animal?

Some individuals may qualify for an emotional support animal and believe that they can enter into a facility that doesn’t typically allow ESAs but does allow service animals by misrepresenting their emotional support animal as a service animal. This can be done by directly lying to others when asked or utilizing vests, IDs, and leashes that are marked to identify service animals on your emotional support animal.

You must take note that this is a crime and is often a federal misdemeanor. Misrepresenting an ESA or even a regular pet as a service animal makes it more difficult for those with service animals to access the places they need without stress and poses a risk to others, as emotional support animals do not undergo the extensive training that service animals do to remain focused and alert in public.

Many state laws are adding updates to emotional support animal law that further list the punishments and fines one may incur by misrepresenting their emotional support animal as a service animal. California is the most recent state to undertake legislation such as this.

Do Emotional Support Animals Count as Psychiatric Service Animals?

Although ESAs provide benefits for individuals with mental health-related needs, they are not considered psychiatric service animals. Psychiatric service animals are trained to help relieve specific aspects of an individual’s psychiatric disability, such as PTSD, OCD, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or autism. They perform specific tasks and skills such as checking rooms, guarding their owner’s backs, accompanying them in public, identifying hallucinations, retrieving medications, and helping their owners calm down from disability-related stress or emotional disturbance.

Emotional support animals are not trained, and they do not perform tasks to help relieve and support aspects of an individual’s disability, though they do provide comfort, support, and relief with their presence and the routine that caring for the animal brings to their owner’s life.

Who Qualifies for an Emotional Support Animal?

A range of individuals may be able to qualify for an emotional support animal, but the one requirement that you must meet in the majority of states is having a qualifying mental health or psychiatric disability that is diagnosed by a licensed mental healthcare professional, such as a therapist, psychiatrist, or a psychologist. If you regularly see a mental healthcare provider, you will need to speak with them about adding an ESA into your treatment and care plan.

If you believe you would benefit from an emotional support animal, your first step will be receiving a diagnosis for any mental health condition or disability that you might have. You will work with your mental healthcare provider to develop a treatment plan and aim for improvement of your symptoms, and an emotional support animal might be a part of your overall care plan.

Examples of mental health conditions or disabilities that may benefit from the presence of an emotional support animal include anxiety, depression, learning disabilities, chronic stress, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Benefits of Emotional Support Animals

Over recent years, many scientific studies have been conducted on the benefits that companion animals and pets bring to their humans. Benefits ranging from decreased stress to lowered blood pressure and greater overall enjoyment of life have been reported from these studies. Still, a study conducted by the University of Toledo, published in 2021, brought the first scientific evidence that emotional support animals specifically provide benefits to those with chronic mental illnesses.

The study provided shelter cats and dogs to a variety of low-income individuals who were referred by their mental health providers and measured both the stress hormone cortisol and the bonding hormone oxytocin, in addition to administering regular surveys on the individual’s depression, anxiety, and loneliness throughout the twelve-month period of the study.

By the time the study concluded, the individuals exhibited a significant decrease in depression, anxiety, and loneliness overall, as well as lower amounts of cortisol and increased amounts of oxytocin after the individuals engaged in focused interactions with their emotional support animals.

Simply put, emotional support animals help to decrease certain symptoms associated with mental health conditions, reduce stress, and improve an individual’s calmness or happiness simply by acting as a comforting companion for their owner. This study shows that emotional support animals are a fantastic way to enhance an individual’s overall care or treatment plan.

Understanding Your Emotional Support Animal Rights

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ESAs are granted certain protections, and the individuals who live with their support animals benefit from being able to keep their companion by their side throughout their daily lives. Below, we help you understand the rights that you might be granted with your emotional support animal on both a state and federal level.

Federal Protections

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is one of the most well-known pieces of federal legislation surrounding individuals with disabilities and any service animals they may need. However, because ESAs are not considered service animals, they are not included in public access rights and other coverages that the ADA grants.

The Fair Housing Act (FHA), on the other hand, is applicable to service animals and emotional support animals. The Fair Housing Act protects the right to fair and equal housing for those with disabilities. Those who need to live with their emotional support animal will be able to request accommodations under this act.

Individuals who need to bring their ESA with them to a residence or property will not be required to adhere to any breed restrictions and cannot be charged pet fees or pet rent. Additionally, they are allowed to bring emotional support animals onto properties that typically don’t allow this. However, accommodation requests must be reasonable, and the emotional support animal must be non-destructive and non-aggressive.

State Protections

While many states have specific laws and regulations surrounding service animals, emotional support animals typically aren’t granted additional protection. However, all states must adhere to federal emotional support animal protections, which is the right for an individual to live with their ESA as needed, regardless of whether or not the property accepts animals.

However, some states, such as California, do have additional laws that protect the right of individuals to bring their emotional support animal to the workplace and provide additional information about the sales of items that might identify an emotional support animal. Check with your state government website for more legislation information detailing emotional support animal rights in your jurisdiction.

Traveling With Your ESA

Until 2021, individuals were able to bring their emotional support animals with them onto a plane without paying any additional fees due to federal protections granted by the Air Carrier Access Act. However, according to new legislation and updates to the Air Carrier Access Act, airlines are now able to decide whether or not they wish to accept ESAs. You may find that you need to treat your ESA as a pet when traveling with certain airlines, and this means adhering to registration regulations and paying applicable fees to keep your animal with you in the cabin of the aircraft.

It’s important to note that service animals are still able to access aircraft without fees, and airlines will need to accommodate service animals on flights as needed. You will still need to check with the specific airline you wish to fly with for more detailed information on bringing your service animal or emotional support animal on board.

Living With Your ESA

As previously mentioned, federal and state regulations protect the rights of an individual to live alongside their emotional support animal, no matter where they need to find housing. This is done to ensure that individuals with disabilities receive the same housing privileges as others and are not separated from the animal companion that helps them throughout their daily lives.

You will need to make accommodation requests to your landlord or rental agency when moving into a new property or bringing an emotional support animal onto a property you already live in to ensure that you avoid any pet fees or pet rent that may be otherwise charged.

Make sure you understand your specific state rights when it comes to living with your emotional support animal, and reach out to a legal advocate if you believe that your rights to live with your emotional support animal are being unfairly denied.

How Do I Obtain an Emotional Support Animal?

After reading through the many benefits that emotional support animals bring and taking the time to understand what your rights would be if you add one of these companion animals to your life, you may now be wondering how to obtain an ESA. Review the items below to learn the general process for adopting an emotional support animal and benefiting from one of these supportive companions.

Determine Your Needs

As you evaluate whether or not you could benefit from an emotional support animal, you should take the time to determine your needs and consider how an ESA could help you. Many individuals considering adding an emotional support animal are already diagnosed with a mental health condition or disability and have a treatment or care plan in place. If you don’t already have a diagnosis or care plan, the first step is to reach out to a licensed mental health provider so you can determine your needs and start working towards relief from your symptoms.

From there, think about how an emotional support animal would fit into your life. Take the time to consider how you would care for the animal, if you have the funds to bring them to a vet when needed, and if you can physically keep up with the overall care associated with the animal. It’s important to remember that while emotional support animals do provide their humans with significant benefits and are often considered essential parts of a treatment plan, they are still animals that need to receive adequate care.

You should also determine whether or not you will need your support animal to complete tasks for you, such as retrieving medications or giving medical alerts. If this is the case, you may benefit from a service animal instead of an emotional support animal.

Speak With Your Mental Health Provider

Once you have thought about the realistic things connected to adopting an emotional support animal and adding them into your life, you will need to speak with your mental health provider. They will help you understand how to transition your ESA into your treatment plan and write you an official emotional support animal letter. This letter will detail your need for an emotional support animal and is vital when requesting accommodations for you and your ESA.

Make sure that you understand the regulations in your state on what your emotional support animal letter should say and when a licensed mental health provider is allowed to write you one of these documents. For instance, you may need to be a patient of your medical provider for at least 30 days before you can receive a letter. Every state is different, so double-check these items and speak to your mental health provider for more information.

Adopt Your Companion Animal

After you have consulted with your mental health or medical provider and received your emotional support animal letter, you can adopt an animal that you feel a bond with. Animal shelters and local rescue organizations are the best way to find an animal that you feel will provide you with comfort and support.

If you already have an animal at home that you would like to transition into an emotional support animal, you will need to submit your request for accommodations to your landlord or the rental agency for your property as applicable. Doing so will remove any pet rent or pet fees that you may have paid before your companion animal was classified as an emotional support animal.

Request Accommodations as Needed

When it comes to accommodations for you and your emotional support animal, accommodations for living spaces and residences are the most common. As you move onto new properties, you will need to show your official emotional support animal letter to your landlord or rental agency as part of your accommodation request. In some states, you might be able to request accommodations to bring your emotional support animal to the workplace, or you may be able to travel with your ESA and stay in hotels without paying any extra fees.

Always double-check the details about traveling with your ESA, staying in hotels with your ESA, and bringing your ESA to the workplace so you can understand your exact rights and keep your companion by your side as needed.

FAQs About Emotional Support Animals

man snuggles chocolate Labrador

Information about emotional support animals, including the details of these companions and your rights when adopting an emotional support animal, can be confusing.

Our answers to the most frequently asked questions about emotional support animals will help you put any remaining worries or questions to rest when it comes to these wonderful supportive animals.

Do Emotional Support Animals Need to Be Trained?

Emotional support animals are different from service animals. ESAs provide benefits to individuals with certain mental health conditions or disabilities via their presence and the routine that caring for these animals provides. You are not required to train your emotional support animal, as they are not expected to perform disability-related tasks or skills for you the same way that service animals are.

That being said, it’s always helpful to teach any animal that you own basic manners when possible so that you can more easily take them into public or travel with them. Any animal can benefit from the stimulation that comes with consistent training, and the bond you have with your animal is often deepened when you take the time to train with them.

Does an Emotional Support Animal Need to Be a Dog?

Emotional support animals don’t need to be dogs, though this is a very common choice, along with cats. Any animal can be an emotional support animal, but when choosing the animal you wish to adopt, your mental health provider might need to list what benefit the animal has on your mental health condition or disability.

If you pick an animal that is more exotic, requires complex care, or might be hard to care for in more residential areas (i.e., without specialized equipment or proper space), it might be harder to get your emotional support animal recognized and take advantage of the protections granted to you for living with your ESA.

Can I Bring My Emotional Support Animal Into a Restaurant?

In general, you cannot bring your emotional support animal into a restaurant with you unless the restaurant permits animals. Emotional support animals are not service animals, and they are not granted the same widespread public access rights as service animals. Always double-check with a facility that you wish to enter about whether or not emotional support animals will be granted the right to access that place, and don’t become combative if turned away. Most states do not provide specific access rights for emotional support animals, no matter how well-behaved your animal might be.

If you absolutely need to keep your companion animal by your side when out and about in public for a specific reason, then you might benefit more greatly from a service animal, not an emotional support animal.

Can I Live and Travel With My Emotional Support Animal?

You have a few different protected rights when it comes to your emotional support animal, and you do have the right to live with your ESA. You will need to submit a formal accommodation request using your official emotional support animal letter to your landlord or property’s rental agency to ensure you will receive reasonable, adequate accommodations for you and your emotional support animal.

You can travel with your emotional support animal, but whether or not you will be able to get fees waived or stay in areas that don’t typically allow animals is very situation-dependent. The Air Carrier Access Act no longer covers emotional support animals, so airlines will now decide whether to accept these pets on a case-by-case basis. You may need to pay fees when flying with your emotional support animal and have them treated like a pet as you register your animal to board the flight with you.

Can a Landlord Deny My Accommodation Request?

There are only a few circumstances in which your landlord or rental agency might be able to legally deny your request for accommodations. We list common valid reasons for denial below:

  • Your accommodation request isn’t reasonable, such as bringing several large dogs into a small studio apartment or other space that doesn’t allow for proper care.
  • Your animal is destructive, destroys property, or causes significant financial loss to the landlord or rental agency.
  • Your animal poses a direct health or safety threat to others on the property.

If you believe that your accommodation request has been denied for a reason other than those listed above, you will need to check with your state’s regulations, federal law, and consult a legal professional in the case that you have been unfairly denied your right to live with your emotional support animal.

Do I Need to Identify My Emotional Support Animal?

You don’t need to identify your emotional support animal via a vest, ID card, harness, or other marked leashes and certificates. Some individuals may choose to identify that their animal is an emotional support animal when they take them in public, but this is a personal preference. Identifying your animal as an ESA can help reduce unwanted interactions with other animals or individuals interested in meeting your animal, but there is no law requiring it, and individuals cannot make you identify your emotional support animal.

Can I Tell People My Emotional Support Animal Is a Service Animal?

It is illegal to misrepresent your emotional support animal as a service animal, and many states have laws in place against this action, as well as it being considered a federal misdemeanor in certain circumstances.

Attempting to pass your emotional support animal off as a service animal might seem like a great way to gain access to public areas that your animal might not otherwise be allowed in, but doing this is dangerous for those around you, as your ESA likely isn’t trained to handle public spaces, crowds, and distractions, and makes it harder for individuals with legitimate service animals to access the spaces they need without stress or scrutiny.

Should I Get a Service Animal or an Emotional Support Animal?

The choice of whether or not to get a service animal or an emotional support animal is a highly personal one. As you consider which of these animals would be more beneficial to your life and treatment plan, you should make a note of whether you will need your animal to complete certain disability-related tasks for you or if you are just looking for the comfort and support that an emotional support animal might provide. If you believe that you will need to be accompanied by your animal at all times for a specific reason, a service animal might be a better choice for you.

Make sure to speak with your mental health provider before making a choice about adding a service animal or an emotional support animal to your care plan, as they will be able to help you narrow down the benefits that you might get from either choice and assist you in making your final decision.

Avoiding ESA Letter Scams

As the popularity of emotional support animals has risen over recent years, so have the number of companies claiming to offer ESA letters for a fee. It’s important to use common sense and scrutiny when trying to find a way to officially register an emotional support animal, as many companies are designed to simply take your money and provide you with a fake letter or a letter that would not be valid to request accommodations.

Make sure that you understand your state’s regulations surrounding what an official ESA letter is supposed to say, and that you have a licensed mental health care provider as needed for diagnosis of a mental health condition or disability and the receipt of an official emotional support animal letter that will allow you to request accommodations without issue.

Adopting the Emotional Support Animal You Need

Emotional support animals make wonderful companions, and they are a valuable part of many individuals’ treatment plans.

If you would like to add an emotional support animal to your life or you think that one of these animals would help you greatly when dealing with a mental health condition or disability, your first step is to reach out to your mental health care provider. Together, you can discuss the pros and cons of an emotional support animal, learn more about your rights, and eventually adopt the emotional support companion that you need.

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