Understanding Emotional Support Animals - The Basics

Written by: Lindsay Giguiere



Time to read 5 min

Certifying a pet as an emotional support animal (ESA) can be a significant decision for anyone facing mental or emotional challenges. While any dog can offer incredible emotional connection and companionship, ESAs provide specific support prescribed by licensed mental health professionals.

In this article, we'll explain the basics about emotional support dogs, including their purpose, what makes them different from service dogs, legal considerations, the importance of maintaining the integrity of the ESA system, and how to certify your pet as an Emotional Support Animal.

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The Role of Dogs as Emotional Support Animals

Everyone who's ever owned a dog knows there are many benefits to having a canine, from getting them out of the house or exercise to receiving loyal, unconditional love and constant companionship.

However, some people with mental or emotional conditions find that the presence of a pet, which can also be a cat, a rabbit, or any other creature, is critical to their ability to function normally in their daily lives. This is because the pet offers emotional support and reassurance to help deal with challenges that could compromise their quality of life.

These pets are known as emotional support animals (ESAs), and they offer crucial reassurance and comfort necessary for individuals with disabling mental illnesses.

Dogs are the most popular choice for this role due to the incredible bond and level of communication they can achieve with humans. In addition, they can help alleviate anxiety, depression, and specific phobias, providing a sense of stability and unrivaled companionship.

Are Emotional Support Dogs the same as Service Dogs?

ESAs differ from service dogs in terms of the support they provide and the legal accommodations they receive. While ESAs offer emotional companionship, service dogs undergo specialized training to perform tasks directly related to a person's disability.

Service dogs, such as guide dogs or psychiatric service dogs, are generally allowed anywhere the public is permitted; ESAs may not have the same access rights. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service animals as "dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities."

Animals that provide emotional comfort do not qualify as service animals under the ADA. It's essential to check with local government agencies to determine if ESAs qualify for public access in your area, as state and local laws may have broader definitions.

Emotional Support Animals and Psychiatric Service Animals

There are also service dogs, known as psychiatric service dogs, that need specific training to work with people with a disability due to mental illness. Although this may sound similar to an ESA, what separates a psychiatric service dog and an ESA lies in the tasks the dog performs and the training it has been given to perform these tasks.

In addition, while various pets, including cats and rabbits, can be considered ESAs, only dogs and miniature horses are recognized as PSAs under the ADA.

Psychiatric service dogs have been trained to do specific tasks that help the handler cope with a mental illness. However, if it is simply the dog's presence that helps the person manage, it does not qualify as a psychiatric service dog; it is an Emotional Support Animal.

The ESA Certification Process

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To legally certify a pet as an emotional support dog, a licensed mental health professional such as a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist must assess the need for the animal's presence for the patient's mental health. They will then prescribe the animal to the individual with a disabling emotional or mental condition, as part of a broader treatment plan.

There is no federal registration scheme for ESAs. However, if an ESA is needed to assist a patient in navigating daily life, the therapist will issue two legally valid letters: one for travel, and one for housing, that secure access to certain legal rights.

Legal Considerations

ESAs do not receive the same public access rights as service dogs under the ADA. Some state and local laws may provide broader definitions, so we recommend you check with local government agencies for specific regulations.

Housing Accommodations for Emotional Support Animal & Dog Owners

Under the Fair Housing Act, individuals with an ESA prescription are entitled to specific accommodations when it comes to housing. For example, housing providers cannot discriminate against tenants with disabilities. In addition, they waive rules such as pet bans or restrictions. Additionally, ESA owners should not be charged pet deposits for having their support animal live with them.

Air Travel for Emotional Support Animals

In December 2020, the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) implemented revisions to the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) regarding service animals. The new definition aligns with the ADA, recognizing only dogs as service animals and excluding emotional support animals, comfort animals, and other species.

Therefore airlines may treat emotional support animals as pets and implement their policies regarding their carriage. Passengers with service dogs may need to complete a DOT-authorized form before travel to confirm their training, health, and certification.

The critical point is that before traveling with an Emotional Support Animal, you must check with your carrier if they can stay with you in the cabin. Each airline has its specific regulations, which may change occasionally.

Why Fake ESAs Pose a Risk to Everyone

Fraudulent ESA certifications are on the rise and lead to distrusting the system that individuals with genuine needs rely upon. Organizations including the American Kennel Club (AKC) have expressed concerns about the misuse of ESAs,for example by people who just want to travel with a pet in the cabin. They emphasize the importance of upholding the integrity of the emotional support animal program.

Obtaining a Valid ESA Certification for your Animal

If you want to access the benefits of a valid Emotional Support Animal the key is to work with an experienced, professional provider of ESA documentation. For example, through our Free My Paws ESA Certification Progam, a licensed therapist will assess your needs before creating individualized letters for travel and housing, which you can use to secure your legal rights. Importantly, they can advise on regulations, notify you of any changes, and provide ongoing support. So you'll know you're in good hands.

In Conclusion

If you suffer from mental or emotional conditions, certifying your pet as an emotional support animal can bring numerous benefits. While emotional support dogs differ from service dogs and offer specific legal rights, they also provide invaluable support and companionship in times of need.

It is important to understand and respect the distinction between ESAs and PSAs and to uphold the integrity of the ESA system by obtaining valid certification. In this way, we ensure that people with genuine needs continue to receive the incredible reassurance and assistance their pet can provide to improve their quality of life.

Want to learn more about ESA Certification? Click HERE to go to our Free My Paws Emotional Support Animal Certification Program and get started today.