Do you have a pet that you’d like to qualify to be an emotional support animal ( ESA,) or, maybe, you’re looking at obtaining a new animal to serve as your ESA. In either case, it’s important to understand that you, yourself, can label almost any animal an ESA, but you’ll need documented qualification for you and your ESA to enjoy certain travel and housing waivers. Let’s explore how you qualify and what rights you gain.
Service Animal Vs. Emotional Support Animal
It’s important to first distinguish that an ESA and service animal are not one in the same. ESAs do have more public leeway than standard pets, but don’t expect the same all-access service animal pass.
Service dogs are professionally trained to function against an owner’s disability, have the legal right to accompany their owner almost anywhere, and are protected under the American’s with Disabilities Act. It’s a long, tedious, and very involved process to get a service animal trained and qualified.
ESAs do not fall under the same category or share the same inclusive right to accompany you everywhere you go. However, they also do not have the same standard of training or limitations in terms of qualifiers. Any domesticated animal (so long as it doesn’t pose a threat or disturbance to others) can be considered an ESA, which includes rodents, lizards, rabbits, snakes, etc.
The above distinction will help you avoid wasting time applying for “service dog” certifications that aren’t applicable to your ESA.
Remember, the intent of an ESA is to provide relief and support for the owner’s emotional and/or mental distress. As such, the qualification for ESA isn’t centered around the animal. Instead, it’s centered around you, the owner. It’s called an ESA letter.
What’s An ESA Letter?
You’ll often see info on certifying your ESA. This isn’t actually accurate phrasing, and anyone offering a “certificate program” for your ESA is selling/providing something that has no legal weight or purpose. It’s you, not the animal, actually getting ‘certified,’ and you do so via an ESA letter.
You can obtain an ESA letter if you already have an animal providing support or plan to obtain one. An ESA letter is an official recommendation from your licensed health care provider or other doctor stating that you have an emotional disability and a need for an ESA.
For legal purposes, your ESA should be completed by a licensed mental health professional. While ESAs from family physicians are often accepted by landlords and airlines, an ESA from a mental health professional often stands up in court as more authoritative if you should ever need to initiate a legal case for right violations or denials.
Speaking of rights, you should understand that an ESA letter works in conjunction to two main laws concerning travel and housing:
• The Federal Air Carrier Access Act, which offers emotionally impaired persons the right to be reasonably accompanied while flying on an aircraft.
• The Fair Housing Amendments Act, which says that most landlords must make reasonable accommodation to allow tenants to have emotional support animals.
To take advantage of such privileges, you simply provide the airline or housing authority with your ESA letter. Note that, unlike with service animals, ESA privileges do not extend to public forums like restaurants and shopping malls. With that said, some businesses are adopting more lax animal policies to accommodate for ESAs. Always check, however, before assuming that ESAs are welcome.
How To Get An ESA Letter?
You’ll need to make an online or in-person appointment with a licensed mental health specialist, such as a psychiatrist or physiologist. Your therapist will determine that you have a mental health condition, such as anxiety, PTSD, depression, or so forth. The need for and benefit of an ESA will be established. You’ll then get an ESA letter.
This letter will include the doctor’s license number and date of determination. In most cases, the letter is considered valid for a year. So, be careful to update your letter each year.
Keep your ESA with you during travel. If necessary, provide it to the authority over your housing situation – dorm, apartment, condo, or other rental/lease – to be released from normal pet policies.
Such entities may ask you to complete additional paperwork or releases about your ESA, but the only “qualifier” or “proofs” you need to waive pet policies where you live and travel is that ESA letter. By the way, the animal you claim on your ESA letter isn’t considered a pet by legal definition – it’s now considered an emotional support animal.
Should I Register My ESA?
Various professional agencies, such as the National Service Animal Registry, offer registration kits for ESAs. While these are completely unnecessary and in no way a mandatory qualifier to take advantage of the rights you and your ESA have through an ESA letter, some ESA owners find it offers a more authoritative presentation for the public. Most kits come with features like ESA ID cards, tags, vests, patches, leashes, collars, and so forth.
Again, the above is legally useless and not a qualifier in any way, but, from a public perception standpoint, it can help others understand and respect why you get to bring or house your ESA places they can’t do the same with a standard pet.