Emotional Support Animal: The Definitive Guide to ESAs and Emotional Support Animal Letters

By Chelsea Hunt-Rivera / January 29, 2018
The definite guide of emotional support animal

emotional support animal

The human-animal bond is a powerful thing. Humans have been domesticating animals and keeping them as pets for centuries. We have taught our pets to love and obey us and even to serve us. From hearing assistance dogs to seizure awareness dogs, service animals play an instrumental role in the lives of their owners. However, there is another category of assistance animal emerging on the scene: the emotional support animal.

Emotional support animals, or ESAs, perform a similar function for people suffering from mental or emotional, rather than physical, disabilities. Indeed, ESAs have been in the news recently, as more people seek to improve their mental well-being through animal companionship. Despite the news coverage, there is still confusion around ESAs and where they fit within the categories of assistance animals. If you currently own/are considering an emotional support animal, it’s important that you are familiar with the relevant federal laws. We’re here to clear up some common misconceptions and questions. We’ll help you decide if an ESA is right for you and give you some practical advice on how to get ESA-official.

What is an Emotional Support Animal (ESA)?

An Emotional Support Animal is just what it sounds like – a companion animal that provides emotional support to its owner. These animals – often, but not always, dogs – comfort and help alleviate symptoms for people suffering from emotional and mental illnesses. ESAs fall under a broader category of assistance animals that includes service animals and psychiatric service dogs. However, emotional support dogs are not service animals (more on those distinctions later).

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) defines emotional support animals as those that “provide companionship, relieve loneliness, and sometimes help with depression, anxiety, and certain phobias, but do not have special training to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities.” This distinguishes them from, say, seeing eye dogs and seizure response dogs, which are classified as service animals.

Who Can Own An ESA?

emotional support animal for stress disorder

Emotional support dogs offer affection and companionship to those suffering from a range of mental and psychological disabilities. This may include such conditions as:

  • Stress disorders
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Depression
  • Panic/Anxiety disorders, including social anxiety
  • Mood/Personality disorders
  • Phobias

A licensed mental health professional must diagnose an individual with a mental illness for the individual to qualify for an ESA. Anyone professionally diagnosed with an emotional disability can benefit from developing a close, emotional bond with an animal. You can do this with a pet you already own or with a newly-adopted dog or cat. Even pigs and miniature horses can make excellent emotional support animals. However, you must have an official letter by a Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP). This includes psychiatrists and psychologists as well as licensed clinical social workers. Any ESA letter must meet federal law requirements, including ADA and the Fair Housing Act.

The letter should indicate that you’re a patient of an LMHP on a case-by-case basis for mental or emotional disabilities. It should also demonstrate that your individual disability is significantly limiting and adversely affects your emotional well-being. The letter will prescribe an emotional support animal as necessary in maintaining your mental health. It will often include details about the animal (name, type, breed, etc.).

Lastly, it should also be noted that a qualifying animal should be reasonably well-behaved (by typical pet standards). This means it should be potty trained and shouldn’t be a nuisance or danger to people or other  animals.

What Is the Difference Between ESAs and Other Assistance Animals?

The distinction is not always clear, so we’ll spend some time here breaking down those categories.

Emotional Support Animals

As we have seen, emotional support animals provide a service to their individual owners by helping to mitigate and alleviate symptoms that arise from a mental disability. ESAs do not undergo any formal training as a prerequisite or requirement to becoming an emotional support dog. Nor do they receive any kind of formal accreditation. This element of individualized training is what legally separates an emotional support animal from a service dog. As we’ll see, service animals and psychiatric service dogs undergo training to assist one individual with their specific disability-related needs.

Service Animals

Again, a service animal – think guide and seeing eye dogs – are trained to assist an individual person with a disability. The ADA defines service animals, which have traditionally been dogs and miniature horses, as such:

A service animal means any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Tasks performed can include, among other things, pulling a wheelchair, retrieving dropped items, alerting a person to a sound, reminding a person to take medication, or pressing an elevator button.

Emotional support animals, comfort animals, and therapy dogs are not service animals under Title II and Title III of the ADA.

Because ESAs are not considered service animals under ADA, they don’t receive all the legal protections afforded to service animals. For example, service dogs are legally allowed to enter public facilities and accommodations like restaurants and movie theaters. Emotional support and therapy dogs, conversely, do not enjoy this same protection.

Psychiatric Service Dogs

Psychiatric service dogs (PSDs) lie somewhere in between service animals and emotional support dogs. In addition to offering emotional support and companionship, they also know how to recognize psychiatric episodes in people with severe mental disorders. We’ll turn to the ADA again for an official definition:

Psychiatric Service Dog is a dog that has been trained to perform tasks that assist individuals with disabilities to detect the onset of psychiatric episodes and lessen their effects. Tasks performed by psychiatric service animals may include reminding the handler to take medicine, providing safety checks or room searches, or turning on lights for persons with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, interrupting self-mutilation by persons with dissociative identity disorders, and keeping disoriented individuals from danger.

So both PSDs and ESAs can offer emotional and task-related support to their owners. The difference between them is that PSDs have received individualized training to do so. To qualify for a PSD, you must be diagnosed with a severe psychiatric disorder that could potentially endanger your life.

Therapy Animals

Therapy dogs often spread cheer around nursing homes and hospitals. According to ADA, these animals provide people “with therapeutic contact, usually in a clinical setting, to improve their physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning.” However, animal-assisted therapy is not covered by federal laws protecting the use of service animals. This is due to the fact that therapy animals are not limited to working solely with people with disabilities.

Federal Regulations

There are a number of federal regulations that pertain to assistance and service animals. These define the various categories of assistance animals and provide each with legal protections. We’ll break those down now to see what rights ESA owners have under the law.

Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Americans With Disabilities Act distinguishes between the different types of assistance animals and provides certain legal protections for each. Enacted in 1990, the act has since undergone several revisions to provide greater protection to ESAs and their owners. Under Title II, disabled individuals with ESAs must be provided reasonable accommodation, as stipulated in the Fair Housing Act (FHA). ADA elaborates:

Emotional support animals that do not qualify as service animals under the ADA may nevertheless qualify as reasonable accommodations under the FHA. In cases when a person with a disability uses a service animal or an emotional support animal, a reasonable accommodation may include waiving a no-pet rule or a pet deposit. This animal is not considered a pet.

This distinction is crucial. An emotional support dog is not a pet but an animal that “provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability.” This means that individuals with an ESA are legally protected under the Fair Housing Act and cannot be denied housing. We’ll take a closer look at this law now.

Fair Housing Act

Emotional Support Dog

The Fair Housing Act protects individuals with disabilities from being discriminated against or denied housing. Landlords must provide “reasonable accommodation” to disabled persons with a verified emotional support dog or other animal. This includes those communities with a “no pet” policy. A landlord or homeowner’s association is restricted from asking about the existence, nature, and extent of an individual’s disability. According to a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) notice, however, a landlord may request that the individual certify the following in writing.

Your Emotional Support Animal Letter Should Include…

(1) that the tenant or a member of his or her family is a person with a disability; (2) the need for the animal to assist the person with that specific disability; and (3) that the animal actually assists the person with a disability.

Once the landlord verifies these criteria, legally, they must make an exception to a “no pets” policy. The only way such a request for reasonable accommodation can be denied is through a determination that:

(1) the specific assistance animal in question poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others that cannot be reduced or eliminated by another reasonable accommodation, or (2) the specific assistance animal in question would cause substantial physical damage to the property of others that cannot be reduced or eliminated by another reasonable accommodation.

This must be determined through “an individualized assessment that relies on objective evidence about the specific animal’s actual conduct — not on mere speculation or fear.” Further to this point, a landlord may not impose breed, size, and weight restrictions on an assistance animal. Nor may property owners charge fees like deposits or rent to individuals with an emotional support dog. However, the property owner may legally charge a fee if the animal inflicts significant damage to the property. The property owner may also legally charge a fee if the owner neglects the animal.

Student Accommodation

As a student in a residence hall or other on-campus housing, you may wonder if the FHA protects you as well. Rest assured. Title II of the ADA applies to public entities that provide housing, including state universities and other places of education. Additionally, the FHA obligates university housing providers to provide reasonable accommodation to disabled persons with an emotional support animal.

Recent court cases, including United States v. University of Nebraska Kearney and Alejandro v. Palm Beach State College, have further bolstered ESA owners’ rights to reasonable accommodation. In the former, the university housing in question was deemed a “dwelling” and therefore subject to the FHA.

Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA)

flying with an emotional support animal

The Air Carrier Access Act, passed in 1990, works alongside Department of Transportation rules to prohibit discrimination against disabled individuals, including ESA owners, traveling by air. The law stipulates that anyone who meets the necessary requirements – who has a diagnosed mental disability and a letter from a mental health professional that confirms the emotional benefit of the animal – can travel with their ESA.

Airlines are not legally permitted to ask questions about the disability or to charge fees for accommodating disabled persons with an ESA. They may not restrict ESA owners or their animals from boarding an airplane or require that they sit in any particular location (unless the animal is large enough to obstruct an aisle). Lastly, keep in mind that certain airlines might require advance notice for those persons traveling with an emotional support dog.

Travel Best Practices

When flying with your ESA, there are a few best practices you should follow to ensure that your flight is a smooth and stress-free as possible. It is also important to be courteous of airline personnel and fellow passengers, especially given the recent crack down by certain airlines. Delta, for instance, recently announced that owners of emotional support animals will have to sign a statement confirming that “their animal can behave.” The new rule will go into effect March 1st and is a response to what the company has reported as an 86 percent increase in “animal incidents” since 2016. Such incidents include urinating, biting, and otherwise showing aggression. Delta says the new regulations also aim to keep well-behaved ESAs and service dogs safe from more aggressive ones.

You should prepare for dubious expressions from people questioning the legitimacy of your emotional support animal. This, of course, in no way undermines your legal right to fly with your animal. But you should be sensitive to this. There are those who will try to get away with passing their pet off as an ESA in order to freely travel with it. Not only is such behavior impermissible, taking advantage of ESA status makes it harder for people with a real need to legitimately utilize the system.

Lastly, ensure that you are in compliance with all federal regulations by having your official ESA letter on your person. And, for the sake of your fellow travelers, be mindful of your animal’s behavior. No one wants to sit through a three hour flight listening to your dog whine and bark.

How Can I Get an ESA?

emotional support animal letter

Now you know the rights afforded to individuals with emotional support animals. But how do you know if an ESA is right for you? We’ll help you decide here and lay out the steps you need to take to become an ESA owner.

Are You Qualified?

The first thing you need to consider is whether you are qualified. Remember, all you need for an emotional support animal designation is a letter from a licensed mental health professional. In this letter, the doctor verifies that you have a mental disability that limits your abilities. Additionally, it must state that you would benefit from the emotional support of an ESA. If you are currently seeing a health professional for a mental/emotional disability and believe that an ESA will positively benefit your mental well-being, feel free to approach your doctor about writing a letter on your behalf.

CertaPet Online Screening

Emotional Support Animal Registration

If you are not currently seeing a doctor or a licensed mental health professional (LMHP), you can take CertaPet’s five minute online screening to determine your eligibility. Upon qualifying, CertaPet will connect you to an LMHP. Once your LMHP signs off on the request, you will receive an official ESA letter within a matter of 48 hours.

Do I Need to Get My ESA Certified?

There are a number of sites offering certification and registration services for emotional support animals. These services offer no real benefit and, frankly, are a waste of money. The only piece of documentation your animal needs is an official emotional support animal letter from a licensed health professional. Again, unlike service dogs, you do not have to train an ESA to perform tasks as legislation doesn’t require any kind of specialized training or experience. Don’t fall victim to “emotional support dog registration” or “ESA certification” sites. Such certification schemes simply do not exist.

What Else Do I Need?

All you need is an ESA letter from your LMHP for your pet to have official ESA designation. There are no laws or regulations that state you must clearly identify your pet as an ESA. That said, outfitting your companion with an emotional support animal vest is a great way to make him easily distinguishable. This is particularly helpful when traveling with your animal, as it will alert airline and security personnel to the fact that your pet is an ESA.

You can purchase a brightly colored vest in a variety of materials and styles, including cotton and mesh, that are suitable to your specific requirements. Be sure to properly measure your dog before purchasing a vest to ensure that it fits snugly and comfortably. Additionally, you might also consider including some signage on the vest to indicate that your dog is a working animal. This will reduce instances of people coming up to and petting your animal, which can be distracting to your ESA when performing his work.

The Emotional Support Animal for You

Emotional Support Dogs for depression

Most pet owners can attest to the sense of love and happiness they feel from their connection with their pet. For those suffering through debilitating mental or emotional illnesses, experiencing such a connection is all the more important. Regardless of the animal – dog, cat, horse, or pig – the most important factor is the bond you share. Having a genuine connection with an emotional support animal is a beautiful thing. With the affection and unconditional love of your ESA, your emotional health and well-being can only flourish as your bond strengthens and grows.


What is the difference between an ESA and a Service Animal?

Can I have an ESA in a residence hall at college?

I want an ESA. What do I do to get one?

How do I register my ESA?

If your dog acts out when you’re not there, they may have separation anxiety! Check out our post to see if your dog needs treatment ASAP!


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About the author

Chelsea Hunt-Rivera

Chelsea Rivera is a Dedicated Pet Parent who loves to create amazing content for pet owners and is helping change pet wellness as the Head of Content for Honestpaws.com.