NSAR

National Service Animal Registry

NSAR

National Service Animal Registry

Emotional Support Animals: The Ultimate Guide

A 28-year-old assistant manager at a local Colorado Springs, CO business, who goes by “Punky” Stehlik, has suffered from debilitating anxiety ever since she was an early teenager. A friend suggested she try an emotional support animal (ESA) to help alleviate her anxiety.

So, Ms. Stehlik connected with an online company who specializes in legitimate disability assessments. She then adopted a kitten and named it Twila. The long-haired black cat has worked wonders for her state of mind and stability.

“There have been times I felt like I could not go another minute with my anxiety,” she said. “Twila would sidle up against me and remind me that ‘something does love you’. There WAS a reason to keep going.”

Punky and Twila the Cat

But Ms. Stehlik’s landlord objected to the cat because the apartment complex was a “no-pets allowed” residence. He demanded proof that Twila was a medical necessity and not simply a pet. Ms. Stehlik provided a letter from her online therapist who had a few sessions with her in a video conference and who had put her through an extensive test battery. The document did not satisfied the landlord, however, and he threatened to evict her, if she didn’t get rid of the cat.

Ms. Stehlik hired an attorney and filed a complaint of housing discrimination with the Department of Housing and Urban Development using her legal name. Her filing was just one of more than 2,000 similar complaints the national agency has received so far this year.

The number of people claiming they have a right to live with animals for their mental health — as well as to take them onto planes — has been growing rapidly.

There are many things you may be unaware of when it comes to emotional support animals (ESAs), even if you’re familiar with the essentials. Over the last couple of years, there have been many news reports about emotional support animals, both positive and negative. The fact is, these wonderful companions tend to bring great joy and relief to the lives of those who struggle with a wide variety of emotional and mental issues. Issues that range from ADHD to panic attacks.

Young man hugs his emotional support dog

This guide will present everything you need to know about emotional support animals, what they are, how to get one, the emotional and legal benefits of having one, and much more. Read on or jump to a section:

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What Is an Emotional Support Animal?

In a nutshell, an emotional support animal (ESA) is a person's pet that has been prescribed by a licensed mental health professional, such as a licensed therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. The animal is part of the treatment program for the person and is designed to bring comfort and minimize the negative symptoms of the person's emotional/psychological disability.

Experts, like Gail Saltz, M.D., a psychiatrist and author of The Power of Different, espouse the belief that an emotional support animal’s presence, unconditional love, warmth, and softness; to pet and hold are it are regarded as calming and mood-boosting. In addition, a person’s requirement to care for the pet – to feed, water, and provide other essential needs, produces a stabilizing purpose, contributing to the day to day wellbeing of the person.

Emotional support animal in training

Does an Emotional Support Animal Need Specialized Training??

According to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Fair Housing Act, emotional support animals do not need specialized training. This is because it is the very presence of the animal that is therapeutic effective for its emotionally disabled handler.

Although training is not required, it is advisable for a handler to make certain his or her emotional support animal possesses good manners. The privileges of being able to take an ESA into areas restricted for other pets carries certain responsibilities.

There have been many reports of problematic emotional support animals in the news, particularly when an ESA has demonstrated issues in public with:

If an emotional support animal is not properly socialized or well-behaved in public, there can be consequences. As an example, if an ESA poses a threat to other tenants, the landlord/property manager may be able to successfully challenge a person’s ESA access legally. Similarly, if an ESA exhibits aggression towards airline personnel or other passengers during a flight, the airline will be able to revoke ESA privileges on future flights.

In addition, there are other benefits to training an ESA: 1) It can be an enjoyable bonding experience for the dog and its handler and 2) it is confidence-inducing to know a pet is trained and manageable when in public.

If the ESA is a dog, it is strongly encouraged that the dog be trained in the following areas/commands:

Most dogs can easily and quickly learn basic commands, including the above, but the training should continue long after the emotional support animal has mastered a command. Training mental stimulation and assists in command retention.

Online emotional support animal assessment process

How Do You Qualify for an Emotional Support Animal?

For a pet to be considered a legitimate emotional support animal, the pet needs to be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional or medical doctor to a person with a disabling mental illness. A family physician, therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist, for example, must decide that the presence of the animal is necessary for the mental health of the patient.

This prescription letter is the most important piece in the process of getting an emotional support animal and is the result of a thorough assessment to determine if this is a viable treatment option for a person’s mental and emotional needs.

Some therapists and physicians are either uncomfortable with the notion of writing an ESA letter prescription or they are simply too unfamiliar with emotional support animals. In situations like this, there are a few reputable online licensed therapists (in a sea of disreputable organizations) who will perform assessments and make a legitimate and legal determination of a person’s need.

An assessment or update for a qualified ESA status is necessary every 12 months for the emotionally disabled determination to remain valid.

Group of licensed mental health professionals

Types of Qualified Licensed Professionals

There are two types of licensed professional that qualify to make a disabled determination for a person to obtain an emotional support animal: 1) a medical doctor/physician assistant and 2) mental health professionals. Here is a more comprehensive list of the categories of licensed mental health professionals.

Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP)

A Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP) is a person who is licensed to practice psychotherapy or mental health counseling in the USA. They are typically master’s level educated or higher and licensed by state. Some examples are:

Pets that qualify as emotional support animal

What Animals Qualify to Be an Emotional Support Animal?

Although the law does not exclude a particular species from qualifying as an ESA, common sense will nearly always prevail. For example, despite there not being written exclusions, if an emotionally disabled airline passenger wants to be accompanied in the cabin of the aircraft by his ESA and the ESA is full sized goat, the airlines will likely require the goat to be crated and travel in “cargo”. Similarly, a landlord would likely be able to successfully defend the rejection of a tenant with a hippo as an ESA.

Dogs are the most common type of emotional support animal, but cats are quite common, too. Many other types of animals also qualify to serve as ESA’s.

For example, a peacock made headlines after it was denied from entering a United Airlines flight, despite the fact that its owner said that the animal was an emotional support animal. Some of the more unusual emotional support animals that have flown with their owners include a pig, a duck, a monkey, and a turkey. The vast majority of ESAs are not rare, exotic, or barnyard creatures.

All domesticated animals may qualify as an emotional support animal (cats, dog, mice, rabbits, birds, snakes, hedgehogs, rats, mini pigs, ferrets, etc.) and they can be any age (young puppies and kittens, too!). These animals do not need any specific training because their very presence mitigates the symptoms associated with a person's psychological/emotional disability. The only requirement is that the animal is manageable in public and does not create a nuisance in or around the home setting.

Woman hugs her ESA

What Are the Benefits of Having an Emotional Support Animal?

Why would an individual choose to use an emotional support animal? Research has long supported the idea that animals can provide significant mental health benefits. One research review found that owning a pet has positive effects on mental health by fostering emotional connectivity and helping people manage in times of crisis.

Some of the other benefits that emotional support animals may provide include:

Reduced anxiety

The act of petting an animal can create a relaxation response and elevate mood. Caring for and attending the emotional support animal can provide an effective distraction

Support for Trauma

Pets can bring comfort to people who deal with difficult symptoms of PTSD or other trauma they have experienced, either recently or in the distant past.

Improved physical health

Studies indicate that emotional support animals can help to lower blood pressure, decrease respiration rates, and facilitate the ability to cope with pain.

Minimized feelings of loneliness

Animals have always provided companionship, which is particularly important for people who live alone and experience the otherwise debilitating symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Reciprocal care and love

The actual act of caring for an emotional support animal – providing for its needs and wants - help give people a sense of purpose. Not only do animals provide unconditional love and companionship, but they also require care and love in return, an emotionally rewarding experience.

What Are the Legal Rights for a Person with an ESA?

For persons with a mental health disability who have a letter from their licensed mental health professional prescribing for them an emotional support animal, they may use a dog, cat, mouse, bird, or one of many other domestic pets as an emotional support animal. These disabled persons, although negatively affected by their mental disorder, do not qualify for a working service dog because there is no major life task that they cannot perform. The ADA protects these disabled handlers and their ESAs ONLY as follows:

Although ESAs are not offered the same protections as working service dogs, if they are dressed in their ESA attire, patches, and ID, often, the handler and ESA will be allowed to enter public places without confrontation. Most people simply do not know the law. The handler should know that if confronted and the public entity is knowledgeable about the law, they may deny the handler’s emotional support animal access – and they are within their legal right to do so.

Airplane flying with emotional support animal

Flying with an Emotional Support Animal

An emotional support animal may fly in the cabin of a commercial or private airline with their disabled handler, and the handler does not have to pay a pet or other fee. A very specific prescription letter or properly completed verification form from a licensed mental health profession is ALWAYS required by airlines, as well as advance notice in most cases that the passenger will be flying with an ESA. In addition, airlines are only required to accept emotional support animals that are cats and dogs.

Emotional support animals at home

Housing Rights for Persons with a Qualified ESA

Landlords and property managers must make reasonable accommodations for tenants or prospective tenants with emotional support animals, even if the apartment, house, college dorm, or other residence does not allow pets. No fees may be legally requested or required from a tenant because of their emotional support animal. Besides requiring a letter of prescription. Property managers/landlords may require that the (prospective) tenant’s mental health professional complete and sign a “third party” verification form.

How Are Emotional Support Animals Different from Service Dogs?

While emotional support animals and service dogs share similarities, it’s important to note the distinctions between the two. Emotional support animals specifically provide companionship and emotional support. Although service animals may provide the same, their purpose is to assist individuals with disabilities by performing tasks specific to their disability.

Service dog vs ESA
Service Dogs

Service dogs have been specially trained to perform a major life activity or task for a person with some form of physical or specific psychiatric impairment. Physical impairments include any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more of the following body systems: neurological, musculoskeletal, special sense organs, respiratory (including speech organs), cardiovascular, reproductive, digestive, genitourinary, hemic and lymphatic, skin, and endocrine.

Although the ADA does not list all conditions or diseases that comprise physical, mental, and emotional impairments (it would be difficult to provide a comprehensive list, given the variety of possible impairments), mental impairments include mental or psychological disorders, such as mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities.

Service dogs are also allowed by law to accompany their disabled handler anywhere its handler would normally go. This includes restaurants, stores, malls and any other place pets may not be allowed. This includes no pet housing, hospitals, zoos, etc.

Woman holding ESA dog
Emotional Support Animals

Emotional support animals, on the other hand, are there to provide companionship aimed at alleviating distress or provide some other type of relief. They have only two legal protections: 1) To live with their handler in no-pet housing and not be charged a fee for the animal and 2) fly in the cabin of an aircraft with the handler and not be charged a fee.

Titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act specify that service animals must be dogs, although reasonable accommodations must be made to allow miniature horses to serve as service animals in cases where the animals have received training to perform specific tasks for the disabled person.

Emotional Support Animals
Service Animals

It is also important to note that emotional support animals and psychiatric service animals are not the same things. Where an emotional support animal may provide benefits to people with mental illness, psychiatric service animals are specially trained to perform specific tasks for people with psychiatric conditions. This might include reminding the individual to take their medications or stop someone from engaging in self-harm.

Emotional support animal registration

Do Emotional Support Animals Need to be Certified or Registered?

There is no government sanctioned registration agency because registration or certification of service animals is NOT required by law. That means that anyone can offer registration services online – and there are several different companies that do.

Because several different service dog registration companies exist online, prospective clients may become confused about that, making it difficult for them to choose which company to use. Here are some facts to know. Each online registration company:

Emotional support animal vest

Are ESA’s Required to Have Identification and Special Vests?

By law, emotional support animals are not required to wear identifying vests, patches, leashes, or ID cards of any kind. It is STRONGLY encouraged, however, to legitimize the look of animal, where possible, including an appropriate vest, patches, and an ID card visibly displayed – clipped to the harness or leash. Airline companies always recommend it. The reason is that it helps identify your pet as a legitimate therapeutic animal and minimize confrontation.

There are no standard or official colors for service dogs or for emotional support animals. Most people use solid red or green for their service vests or harnesses because these colors “look” official.