What steps are required for emotional support animal registration?

Here’s how to legally register your support animal

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Whether you rely on a support pup or a comforting cat, registering your pet as an emotional support animal (ESA) is important to ensure you're able to keep them close by when you need them the most. Registering an ESA is a process that involves obtaining a formal document known as an ESA letter from a licensed mental health professional (LMHP). This letter states that the pet provides therapeutic benefits as part of the owner's treatment program for a diagnosed mental or emotional health condition.

Let’s take a closer look at the eligibility requirements, protections and steps to register for an ESA.

Key insights

An ESA provides companionship to a person with a mental health disability.

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To register an ESA, an LMHP must diagnose you with an emotional or psychiatric disorder and write a prescription letter.

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While ESAs don’t have the same protections as service dogs, they’re considered a reasonable accommodation for housing providers under the Fair Housing Act.

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Who is eligible for an ESA?

You must have a serious emotional or psychiatric disorder to qualify for an ESA. Some eligible conditions may include anxiety disorders, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

A licensed mental health professional (LMHP), such as a therapist, psychiatrist or psychologist, has to diagnose you with the condition and document it with a properly formatted prescription letter.

A valid prescription letter is the only thing that distinguishes an ESA from a regular pet.

ESA animal eligibility

Any animal can be an ESA as long as it’s domesticated and helps the person with a mental health disability. However, the animal must be housebroken and behave acceptably around others.

It’s important to note that ESAs are not the same as service animals. A service animal is a dog (sometimes a miniature horse) that requires special training to perform tasks for people with disabilities.

» COMPARE: Best ESA letter websites

ESA legalities and protection

Housing providers must reasonably accommodate people with disabilities under the Fair Housing Act (FHA). Reasonable accommodations include allowing assistance animals, such as service animals and ESAs.

"There is an important caveat to ESAs that does not exist with service animals," said Ben Michael, attorney at Michael & Associates. "Landlords and business owners have the right to refuse entry on a case-by-case basis should they deem the ESA a threat to others. Housing owners can also deny a tenant with an ESA if the act of permitting the tenant would cause undue financial burden on the owner."

You may also encounter problems with airlines because the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) considers ESAs regular pets, which are subject to size restrictions and a pet fee.

» MORE: What is an emotional support animal?

Steps to register an ESA

The steps to registering an emotional support animal are relatively straightforward:

Diagnosis of a mental or emotional disorder

If you struggle with an emotional or mental disorder, the first step is booking an appointment with a licensed mental health professional.

During the consultation, discuss your mental health condition and explain how you think an emotional support animal could help. The LMHP will evaluate your situation and decide if an ESA is appropriate.

You may also qualify for an ESA online by answering a few questions through a legitimate ESA letter website.

Obtain an ESA letter from a Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP)

Once the LMHP diagnoses you with a mental health disability and recommends an ESA, you’ll need them to write a letter confirming the need for an ESA.

While you can obtain an ESA letter online, a lot of websites out there are scams and provide fake documents. You can determine whether an ESA website is legitimate by verifying the credentials of the LMHPs and checking customer reviews on forums like Reddit.

However, the safest option is to visit a local LMHP to ensure the diagnosis and ESA letter are authentic.

Choose your ESA

Once you receive your ESA letter from an LMHP, you can choose your emotional support animal. Some popular choices include dogs, cats, birds, reptiles, rabbits and minipigs.

As long as you don't violate any laws and your LMHP agrees, you can have as many ESAs as you need.

It’s essential to consider your lifestyle before choosing an ESA. For example, if you live in an apartment, a cat may be a better choice than a high-energy dog breed.

Train your ESA

Although ESAs don’t require special training, it’s still a good idea to teach them basic obedience and manners, such as housebreaking and commands like sit, stay and lie down.

While a vest isn’t necessary, it may prevent others from mistaking your ESA for a pet.

Not only does it make it easier to care for your ESA, but it may increase your bond and provide them with mental stimulation.

Training can also teach your ESA how to behave in public. If your ESA shows aggression, eliminates indoors or disturbs others, a business or other entity can ban them from the premises.

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    What should I do if my ESA is denied access to public spaces or housing?

    Provide your valid ESA letter and respectfully explain your rights. If you still encounter a problem, you may be able to file a complaint or take legal action (unless the other party can legally deny your ESA).

    How long does the ESA registration process take?

    The time for ESA registration varies. However, it could take anywhere from 24 hours to a few weeks, depending on your registration method, the time it takes to consult with an LMHP and the documentation processing time.

    Are there any penalties for falsely registering a pet as an ESA?

    The law may consider it fraud to falsely register a pet as an ESA. Depending on where you live, you could face legal penalties.

    Bottom line

    While an ESA differs from a service animal, they may have housing protections under the FHA. This is why it is important to register your ESA. Registering an ESA is a relatively simple process — many companies allow you to apply online.

    Article sources

    ConsumerAffairs writers primarily rely on government data, industry experts and original research from other reputable publications to inform their work. Specific sources for this article include:

    1. ADA National Network, “Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals.” Accessed March 15, 2024.
    2. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “Assistance Animals.” Accessed March 15, 2024.
    3. U.S. Department of Transportation, “Service Animals.” Accessed March 15, 2024.
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