Where can I take my emotional support dog?

There may be restrictions on the locations your ESA can access

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Though the concept of an emotional support animal (ESA) appears modern, the human-animal bond has been recognized as a powerful source of comfort since ancient times. An emotional support dog can offer comforting companionship for people with anxiety or emotional challenges.

ESAs are becoming more commonly accepted as a way to manage mental health. However, the lack of clear regulations surrounding ESAs can be daunting for both owners and businesses.

When communicating with businesses, landlords and airlines, documentation that includes a letter from a licensed healthcare provider demonstrating a medical need for your ESA can be very helpful.

Let’s explore where you can legally bring your companion animal.


Key insights

ESAs are different from service animals and don’t have the same rights.

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Though the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not guarantee public access for ESAs, many businesses allow them on a case-by-case basis, so it’s worthwhile to check in advance.

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The Fair Housing Act (FHA) offers some federal protection for ESAs in housing with no-pet policies.

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What is an emotional support dog?

An emotional support dog is a pet that has been prescribed by a licensed mental health professional to provide comfort to individuals coping with mental health conditions like anxiety, depression and PTSD.

An emotional support dog offers therapeutic benefits through companionship, and they do not require any specific training to perform tasks. Service dogs, on the other hand, do require specialized training and must accompany their owners everywhere they go.

Distinguishing between the two types of dogs is important because emotional support dogs do not have the same public access rights as service dogs. Generally, an emotional support dog is not allowed in most public places, like restaurants and shopping malls.

» MORE: What is an emotional support animal?

Where are ESAs allowed?

An ESA can provide reassurance in unfamiliar settings. But it’s important to know where your pet may be typically allowed as well as any restrictions.

Housing accommodations

The Fair Housing Act (FHA) protects your right to have an ESA, even in housing with no-pet policies. Landlords must generally allow ESAs of any breed or species as long as they don't cause undue hardship or pose a direct threat.

Public and common areas

Unlike service dogs, emotional support dogs don’t have guaranteed access to all public places. However, some businesses may allow them at their discretion, so it’s always best to check with an establishment beforehand.

Medical offices

Many medical offices recognize the benefits of ESAs for patient comfort and welcome them, depending on the facility. Some areas and situations may not be suitable (like surgery rooms) for pets. Federal laws do not specifically address medical offices, so contact your doctor’s office beforehand to find out about their policy on ESAs. Be prepared with a valid ESA letter and to answer questions about your animal’s behavior and necessity.

» COMPARE: Best ESA letter websites

Where are ESAs not allowed?

Unlike service dogs, ESAs don’t have guaranteed access to every place their owner goes.

“In general, ESAs are viewed the same as companion pets in public places and the travel industry,” said Dr. Nell Ostermeier, a veterinarian and founder of People + Pet Integrative Therapies. “So, the good news is that ESAs can go anywhere that pets are allowed. When it comes to flights, U.S.-based airlines no longer extend additional privileges to ESAs, and they no longer travel for free.”

The revision in the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) changed rules for ESAs, explained Ostermeier, “Now you are charged to fly with your ESA, just like a pet, and they must remain in their carrier under the seat, just like any other pet. Truly, remaining in the carrier is safer for everyone involved.”

Here are the rules for the most common public spaces you might encounter with your ESA:

Public transportation

Airlines and bus companies can have restrictions on ESAs. The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) used to provide some protections for ESAs on flights, but recent changes implemented in 2023 significantly restrict ESA access on airplanes.

Airlines now prioritize service animals with specialized training for passengers with disabilities. Check with the airline regarding any potential exceptions for ESAs, but recent regulations make it unlikely.

Restaurants

Restaurants and grocery stores are generally off-limits for ESAs due to health codes and regulations against live animals in food establishments. However, some businesses may be pet-friendly at their own discretion, so it never hurts to ask politely.

Shops

Most retail stores have the right to refuse entry to ESAs. If your ESA is well-trained, calm and causes no threat to others, some store owners might be accommodating, but it’s not a guaranteed right.

Classrooms

Schools and universities typically do not allow ESAs in classroom settings. However, you might be able to get accommodations for your ESA in a dorm room per the Fair Housing Act (FHA).

Hotels and Airbnbs with no-pet policies

While the Fair Housing Act (FHA) doesn't apply to hotels or short-term rentals, some places might make individual exceptions for ESAs. It's always best to ask a hotel or Airbnb host in advance to ask about their policy.

Do emotional support dogs need an ESA letter?

An ESA letter from a licensed medical professional is a crucial part of navigating housing, travel and other situations with your emotional support dog. A legitimate letter that diagnoses a disabling mental illness and a treatment plan that shows how your pet can assist you will make it possible to secure housing with no-pets policies.

Explaining your need with this documentation can possibly help with travel situations and some public spaces, depending on the business’s discretion.

Your ESA letter and a good attitude are key. Ostermeier said, “I recommend keeping this paperwork with you and approaching a business owner without your ESA, prior to bringing them into the business.”

It’s important to remember that ESAs aren’t legally service dogs and are not guaranteed access to all public places.

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    FAQ

    What animals can qualify as an ESA?

    Any breed of dog and any species of animal can qualify as an ESA. The most common types of ESA are dogs.

    Can I bring my emotional support dog to work?

    Possibly. Under the ADA, employers might be required to allow ESAs at work as a reasonable accommodation for your disability. Check with your HR department and provide documentation from your mental health professional, as well as any training or certifications your pet has received. If your ESA is not well-controlled, your employer may not allow them to stay.

    How can I fly with my emotional support animal?

    Airlines have their own policies regarding ESAs, which are not protected during travel like service dogs are. The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) may provide some protections, but you’ll likely need documentation from your mental health professional and may need to answer questions about your pet. Contact the airline well in advance to understand its specific rules.

    Bottom line

    Your furry friend can be more than just a pet. An ESA can be a lifelong support for those who are struggling with emotional health challenges. While ESAs don’t have the same automatic access everywhere like trained service dogs, a valid letter indicating a medical need for an ESA can boost your chances of finding housing and navigating tricky situations.

    State and local laws about ESAs can vary – just like the sentiments of individual business owners. Before heading into public with your dog, do your homework: contact businesses to check on store policies, have your ESA letter handy and make sure your pet is on their best behavior.


    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. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information. Public Perceptions of Service Dogs, Emotional Support Dogs, and Therapy Dogs - PMC. Accessed April 17, 2024.
    2. The Journalist’s Resource. From best friend to therapist: Research on emotional support animals. Accessed April 17, 2024.
    3. University of California-San Francisco. Laws and Ethics Related to Emotional Support Animals. Accessed April 17, 2024.
    4. U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division. Frequently Asked Questions about Service Animals and the ADA. Accessed April 17, 2024.
    5. U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division. ADA Requirements: Service Animals. Accessed April 17, 2024.
    6. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Assistance Animals | HUD.gov / U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Accessed April 17, 2024.
    7. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. SPECIAL ATTENTION OF: HUD Regional and Field Office Directors of Public and Indian Housing (PIH). Accessed April 17, 2024.
    8. Americans with Disabilities National Network. Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals | ADA National Network. Accessed April 17, 2024.
    9. U.S. Department of Transportation. Service Animal Health Behavior Training Form. Accessed April 17, 2024.
    10. U.S. Department of Transportation. Service Animals | US Department of Transportation. Accessed April 17, 2024.
    11. Casetext. Methods-Prohibiting animals (FDA Food Code 6-501.115), Wash. Admin. Code § 246-215-06570 | Casetext Search + Citator. Accessed April 17, 2024.
    12. U.S. Department of Transportation. U.S. Department of Transportation Announces Final Rule on Traveling by Air with Service Animals. Accessed April 17, 2024.
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