What disabilities qualify for an emotional support animal?

ESAs are prescribed on a case-by-case basis for a range of conditions

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Pets can offer meaningful reassurance during tough times, and having an emotional support animal (ESA) can be a helpful tool for managing mental health challenges.

“The bond between humans and animals has a deep meaning in the process of healing,” said Sophie Cress, a licensed therapist, mental health expert and writer. “Whether it’s the gentle nudge of a horse, the comforting purr of a cat or the unwavering loyalty of a dog, the mere presence of an animal can evoke emotions of warmth and acceptance, promoting a sense of belonging and emotional well-being.”

Research concurs with Cress, showing reduced stress and anxiety along with improved quality of life for those facing illness or disability and demonstrating the power of the human-animal bond. ESAs can potentially ease loneliness for older adults and those facing social isolation, even helping veterans experiencing PTSD symptoms find relief, for example, through working with horses.

ESAs differ from service dogs, which undergo specialized training to help people with disabilities, like guiding the blind. ESAs, on the other hand, do not require rigorous training to offer critical comfort.


Key insights

No specific disability list exists for ESAs. A diagnosed mental or emotional disability from a mental healthcare provider is key.

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Research shows the human-animal bond can lower stress hormones, ease loneliness and help with PTSD.

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A mental health provider or family physician can prescribe an ESA to you for help with a disabling mental illness.

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Who qualifies for an emotional support animal?

The key factor in qualifying for an ESA is having a mental or emotional disability diagnosed by a licensed mental health professional or physician. This care provider, like a therapist, psychiatrist, psychologist or even family physician, will assess your situation and determine if an ESA would be beneficial in managing your condition.

There isn’t a qualifying list of disabilities for ESAs; animals can help with many disabling mental health conditions. Common examples of diagnoses that apply to ESAs include anxiety, depression, PTSD, autism, ADD and phobias. No matter what the diagnosis, an ESA must alleviate or lessen the symptoms of your disability.

Talk to a licensed mental healthcare provider to decide if an ESA could be a helpful addition to your treatment plan.

» MORE: What is an emotional support animal?

Legal protections of ESAs

ESAs offer valuable comfort but have previously had no or limited legal protections, but this is changing in some cases. For example, the Fair Housing Act (FHA) protects ESAs in housing, requiring landlords to accommodate them.

However, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) no longer requires airlines to treat ESAs as service animals and ESAs are considered pets by airlines. It’s essential to distinguish between ESAs, which provide emotional support, and service animals that have specialized training to perform disability-related tasks.

Understanding these differences – and the evolving legal landscape – is crucial for those who rely on ESAs. While a support pet offers important care, they are generally considered pets, and don’t have the same public access rights as service animals.

Individual businesses can have their own policies regarding ESAs, so it’s best to have your documentation ready and contact the business directly in advance before bringing your ESA.

Common disabilities that qualify for an ESA

People with various mental and emotional disabilities may qualify for an ESA. Common examples include anxiety disorders (generalized anxiety and panic disorder), depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder and phobias.

ESAs offer support by providing a reassuring presence and helping to mitigate the debilitating symptoms associated with mental health conditions.

Emotional support animal vs. service animal

Service animals and ESAs both play vital roles but differ in their legal protections and training. Service dogs are rigorously trained to perform specific tasks for people with disabilities, like guiding the visually impaired or alerting people to seizures.

Service dogs are granted broader access rights in public spaces under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), while ESAs are legally treated like pets.

How ESAs assist people with disabilities

ESAs offer people with disabling mental illnesses reassurance in difficult moments, explained Cress. “People who experience panic disorder can find support animals to be a crucial anchor during moments of intense anxiety or panic attacks,” she said. “The presence of a support animal can offer gentle reassurance through physical contact.”

Additionally, Cress explained, ESAs can help with OCD, generalized anxiety disorder and phobias, as well as depression. A support pet can “offer unconditional love and companionship, which can help counter feelings of loneliness and isolation,” she said.

Studies show a loving animal’s presence can provide a calming presence and offer a focus for attention while significantly improving overall mental health and well-being.

How to get an ESA

To obtain an ESA, you’ll need a diagnosis of a mental or emotional disability from a licensed mental health professional. The diagnosis qualifies if the condition is disabling. The healthcare provider will provide a letter outlining your disability and the treatment plan, including the need for an ESA.

Keep in mind that while online services exist, an in-person evaluation is often considered the most legitimate route.

» COMPARE: ESA letter websites

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    FAQ

    Do I need a special certificate or ID for my ESA?

    You don’t need to buy vests, identification or certificates for your ESA. But a vest or tags indicating an ESA can go a long way in reassuring business owners and the public that you’re a responsible pet owner and your support animal is well behaved.

    Can any animal be an emotional support animal?

    Yes, any breed or species of animal can be a legal ESA.

    How do I talk to my doctor about getting an ESA?

    If you’re suffering from mental or emotional challenges, make an appointment with a trusted healthcare provider. Talk to your doctor or therapist about the severity of your mental illness, and how the assistance of an emotional support pet could be a critical part of the treatment plan for healing. A therapist, psychiatrist or family physician can prescribe an ESA with a letter.

    Can airlines refuse to allow my ESA to fly with me?

    Yes, airlines are able to refuse an ESA, which are classified as pets under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). Many airlines have no-pets policies, and ESAs are not exempt from these policies. Check with your airline in advance to find out their rules about ESAs.

    Bottom line

    For people who are tired of struggling with a diagnosed mental or emotional disability, an ESA can provide significant relief and improve your overall well-being.

    To qualify for an ESA, you’ll need a diagnosis from a licensed mental health professional who believes a support pet would benefit your treatment plan. Understand that ESAs are primarily intended for support in housing situations under the Fair Housing Act. Unlike service animals, they don’t have the same broad public access rights.

    Start by discussing the possibility of an ESA with your mental healthcare provider.  If they agree it would be beneficial, they can then write a letter that outlines your diagnosis and the need for an ESA.


    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. The Journalist’s Resource, “From best friend to therapist: Research on emotional support animals.” Accessed April 19, 2024.
    2. The Human-Animal Bond Research Institute, “Mental Health Conditions.” Accessed April 19, 2024.
    3. U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, “Frequently Asked Questions about Service Animals and the ADA.” Accessed April 19, 2024.
    4. Americans With Disabilities Act National Network, “Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals | ADA National Network.” Accessed April 19, 2024.
    5. U.S. Department of Transportation, “79742 - Federal Register/Vol. 85, No. 238/Thursday, December 10, 2020/Rules and Regulations.” Accessed April 19, 2024.
    6. U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, “ADA Requirements: Service Animals.” Accessed April 19, 2024.
    7. The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, “Laws and Ethics Related to Emotional Support Animals.” Accessed April 19, 2024.
    8. University of California-San Francisco, “Laws and Ethics Related to Emotional Support Animals.” Accessed April 19, 2024.
    9. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “Assistance Animals.” Accessed April 19, 2024.
    10. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, “Public Perceptions of Service Dogs, Emotional Support Dogs, and Therapy Dogs - PMC.” Accessed April 19, 2024.
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