What is an emotional support animal?

Your guide to getting an ESA legally

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Emotional support animals (ESAs) provide invaluable support for people who rely on them. Their presence can greatly improve the quality of life for those who benefit from their companionship.

However, it’s important to note that there’s a distinction between ESAs and service animals. Service animals are specifically trained to perform tasks for individuals with disabilities, while ESAs provide emotional support to their owners. It’s crucial to understand this difference, as it affects individuals' legal rights with their animals.

Key insights

  • While dogs are the most common types of ESAs, other animals such as cats, birds and even miniature horses can also serve as emotional support animals.
  • ESAs are not the same as service animals, which are trained to provide specific functions for individuals with disabilities.
  • You must receive a legitimate ESA letter from a licensed mental health professional to have ESA protection.

What qualifies as an emotional support animal?

ESAs play a crucial role in improving the emotional well-being of their handlers (owners). They offer unconditional love, companionship and a sense of security, which can help alleviate symptoms of various mental health conditions. People suffering from anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), among others, often find comfort and relief in the company of an ESA.

Types of emotional support animals

While dogs and cats are the most common types of ESAs, virtually any domesticated animal can fulfill this role. This includes reptiles, rabbits, birds and even miniature horses.

The choice of animal as an ESA depends on the individual's preferences, living situation and the specific benefits they seek. That means limitations such as allergies don’t prevent someone from finding a suitable ESA.

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Do you need an ESA letter?

Once the individual has recognized their need for an emotional support animal, they must obtain a letter of recommendation from a mental health professional. The letter must state that the individual is diagnosed with a mental or emotional disability and that the emotional support animal will provide therapeutic benefits to the individual.

This letter is important, as it serves as legal documentation for the individual to have their emotional support animal with them in housing and on flights.

ESA letters and flights

Until January 2021, ESA letters also allowed handlers to travel on airplanes with their ESA without paying any fees. The U.S. Department of Transportation published a final ruling on traveling by air with service animals in December 2020.

Unfortunately, this Air Carrier Access Act amendment no longer considers an emotional support animal to be a service animal. This means airlines can now determine their policies for allowing ESAs and what fees they will or won’t charge. Always check with your airline before attempting to fly with your ESA.

ESA letters and landlords

According to the Fair Housing Act (FHA), ESAs can’t be denied entry by landlords regardless of no-pet policies. Even after bringing the animal onto the premises, obtaining a legitimate ESA letter to provide to your landlord protects you from eviction, pet deposits, pet rent and more.

If your landlord refuses to accept your letter or violates the FHA, you can report it to the Office of Federal Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO). You must inform your landlord of the ESA and present them with the prescription letter if they request it.

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Emotional support animal requirements

Obtaining an emotional support animal requires a few important steps. First, the individual seeking an emotional support animal must receive a letter from a licensed mental health professional authorized to practice mental health therapy. This can include a psychiatrist, psychologist, licensed clinical social worker or other licensed mental health professional.

Online services that offer emotional support animal letters without direct contact with a licensed professional are not valid.

The individual should also ensure they have the resources and ability to properly care for the animal. The animal must be properly fed, exercised and groomed. The owner must also ensure that the animal receives proper medical care and attention.

The emotional support animal must also be well behaved in public and appropriately trained to perform its therapeutic duties for the owner.

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    Are ESAs the same as therapy animals?

    No, therapy animals are typically trained and certified to provide emotional support to people in hospitals, nursing homes and other settings. ESAs are not required to have any specific training or certification, but they’re still protected under the law.

    Does my ESA need to wear a vest or a tag?

    No, ESAs don’t need to wear any special identification like service animals. However, some owners choose to have their ESA wear a vest or tag to avoid confusion in public places.

    Can I bring my ESA to work or school?

    It depends on the institution's policies. ESAs don’t have the same legal protections in these environments as service animals.

    Bottom line

    Emotional support animals are becoming increasingly popular and are considered helpful for individuals struggling with mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety and PTSD. While not every individual will qualify for ESA protection, it’s worthwhile seeking out the assistance of a licensed mental health professional to learn if you may benefit from one.

    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. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “Assistance Animals.” Accessed Feb. 26, 2024.
    2. U.S. Department of Transportation, “U.S. Department of Transportation Announces Final Rule on Traveling by Air with Service Animals.” Accessed Feb. 26, 2024.
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