How Do Emotional Support Animals Work?

Emotional support animals provide comfort for those with anxiety.
Emotional support animals provide comfort for those with anxiety.

Table of Contents:

    1. Here’s How Dogs, Cats, and Other Animals Are Helping People Live Better Lives
    2. What’s the Difference Between an ESA and a Service Dog?
    3. How Can I Get an Emotional Support Animal?
    4. The Fair Housing Act
    5. The Air Carrier Access Act
    6. Training Your Emotional Support Animal
    7. What Are the Benefits of an ESA Vest?

    Here’s How Dogs, Cats, and Other Animals Are Helping People Live Better Lives

    Have you heard people joke about using their pet as an emotional support animal (ESA)? This term has become increasingly popular in recent years, and you’ve probably seen an article or two pop up about someone trying to get on a plane with their peacock or pony. It seems like almost any animal can be considered a pet for “emotional support,” and it might feel as though some people are just abusing the system to take their pets wherever they go.

    So, what officially makes a pet an emotional support animal?

    They may look like it, but ESAs are not pets. These animals provide emotional and therapeutic benefits to people suffering with emotional issues, anxiety, and psychiatric problems. Emotional support animals are service animals, but they specialize in serving people who need mental health assistance. Typically, people with emotional or psychiatric issues use an emotional support animal to provide comfort during times of emotional stress.

    Some conditions that may qualify for an emotional support animal include:

    • Anxiety
    • Bipolar disorder
    • Depression
    • Eating Disorders
    • Fears and phobias
    • Insomnia
    • Mood disorders
    • Panic disorder
    • Personality Disorders
    • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
    • Schizophrenia
    • Separation anxiety
    • Social anxiety disorder
    • Stress

    Flying is a perfect example of an activity where emotional support animals are most needed. This can be an anxiety-ridden time for those afraid of flight, and having a calm, furry friend by their side can help them cope. However, there’s a difference between having your dog with you on a plane because you need help to stay calm and just wanting to take your dog with you everywhere you go. Sometimes, people will register their animal as an emotional support dog in order to avoid costs or dangers associated with putting their pup in the plane’s cargo hold, which can distract from the actual purpose of having an emotional support animal.

    For people who use their emotional support pet for its intended purpose, the key benefit lies in the fact that they’re able to receive emotional and physical support that therapy sessions and mental health professionals aren’t able to provide. Not only are these animals always by their human’s side, they’re also able to provide unconditional love, which gives patients something to focus on to help ground themselves. Animals also typically have calm, even-tempered personalities, which allows them to connect with their humans and provide them with someone to depend on.

    What’s the Difference Between an ESA and a Service Dog?

    Many of you have probably wondered, “Are emotional support animals and service dogs one and the same?” While the terms can sound like synonyms, these types of animals are actually quite different.

    The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service animal as a dog (or a miniature horse) that has been trained to work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. Any type of dog breed can be used as a service animal, and there are no restrictions as long as the animal can be trained to perform a task related to their owner’s disability. The kinds of tasks performed by service dogs include pulling a wheelchair, guiding someone who is blind, alerting a diabetic that their blood sugar levels have dropped, or warning someone with a seizure disorder. For disabled persons suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, service animals can be trained to calm their owners.

    There are many scenarios in which a disabled person relies on a service animal to help with their disability. The following examples qualify under the ADA’s definition of a “service animal.”

    • A guide dog or a seeing eye dog is a service animal that helps lead people with blindness or visual impairments.
    • A psychiatric service dog can perform tasks, like reminding its owner to take medication.
    • A hearing or signal dog can alert people with significant hearing loss or deafness to certain sounds, like when someone comes to the door.
    • Sensory signal dogs or social signal dogs are trained to help people who suffer from autism.

    According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, government agencies, businesses, and nonprofit organizations that provide goods or services to the public must make a “reasonable accommodation” for people with disabilities. The ADA also provides certain rights for service animals. Service animals are not considered “pets,” so they are protected against “no pets” policies. Laws pertaining to ESAs will vary based on where you live.

    Under the ADA, if you have a service dog, you are never required to disclose your disability to anyone. No one is allowed to ask about your disability or require medical documentation, and they are never allowed to ask the dog to demonstrate its ability to perform the work related to your disability.

    The Americans with Disabilities Act also states that service dogs must always remain under control. Unless it would disrupt their work, all service dogs must wear leashes or harnesses. If the animal cannot wear a harness or leash, the disabled person must use voice or signal commands to maintain control over the dog at all times.

    Your service dog is allowed to accompany you anywhere the general public goes and the law states that you and your service dog cannot be treated any differently. There are only two cases in which a service animal can be asked to leave the premises:

    • The service animal is not housebroken
    • The service animal is out of control and the person with the disability does not do enough to take control of the animal

    Unlike service animals that are trained to perform specific tasks for disabled persons, an emotional support animal’s only function is to provide comfort just by being with a person. Since they are not trained to perform specific tasks, they do not qualify as service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act and they are not given the same rights as service animals.

    How Can I Get an Emotional Support Animal?

    When choosing an emotional support animal, remember that one size does not fit all. An animal that is good for one person might not be a good fit for someone else. When choosing your emotional support animal, consider your personality, your mental or emotional disability, and which animal can best help you deal with your specific challenges.

    Owning an emotional support animal is not something to be taken lightly. You are making a big commitment, so it is important that you choose an ESA with the right temperament and the ability to assist with your personal challenges. An ESA for a depressed or anxious person, for example, should help instill a sense of comfort and security.

    To get an emotional support animal, you only need a few things. First, you’ll need to be officially diagnosed with an emotional disability. Then, you’ll need to receive a prescription for an ESA from a licensed mental health professional like a psychiatrist, a psychologist, or a therapist. You might need to provide this information in writing to take your animal with you everywhere, but other than that, all you need to do is pick the right animal for you. Just keep in mind that the difference between emotional support animals and service animals relates to their accessibility. Emotional support animals are not allowed to enter restaurants and malls like service dogs are, however they are given some additional rights under the Fair Housing Act and the Air Carrier Access Act.

    The Fair Housing Act

    The Fair Housing Act (FHA) provides certain rights and protections for emotional support animals. The FHA classifies the emotional support animal as a type of assistance animal. As such, it is considered to be a “reasonable accommodation” for a person with an emotional disability. This legislation allows individuals with emotional support animals to live in housing with a “no pets” policy, and landlords cannot charge for additional costs like pet deposits. Also, the housing provider cannot restrict the breed, size, or weight of the ESA.

    When you make a request for an assistance animal as a reasonable accommodation to a housing provider, there are only two criteria required for the request:

    • You must have a physical or mental impairment
    • You must have a disability-related need for an assistance animal (Does the animal work, perform tasks, provide assistance, or provide emotional support that alleviates one or more of the identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability?)

    When both of these criteria are met, then the Fair Housing Act requires an exception to the housing provider’s “no pets” policy.

    If you need to use an assistance animal, you must make the request to your housing provider or housing board, and you must provide them with proof of your disability and your need for the disability-related service animal. To verify the need for a support animal, you will need a letter or other documentation from a medical doctor or psychological professional (the letter should be written on their letterhead). Under the law, the housing provider is not permitted to ask to see your medical records. The law also states that the housing provider cannot delay your housing request to an “unreasonable” degree. In addition, the landlord may not charge additional rent for the pet or require a pet security deposit for any service animals or ESAs.

    The Fair Housing Act pertains to colleges as well, and over the past few years, there has been a growing demand for emotional support animals on college campuses. Universities have been hesitant to set firm guidelines regarding ESAs because they are concerned about potential legal action.

    Denying housing because of an emotional support animal has resulted in lawsuits against universities and landlords. In general, landlords must accept emotional support animals, though it is not always a black or white situation. While “reasonable accommodation” must be made, there are some exceptions to the legislation. The law states that a private club does not have to accept emotional support animals. Likewise, a single-family home that is rented without a real estate broker is also given an exception under the Fair Housing Act. If a building has four or less rental units and it is landlord occupied, it does not have to accept ESAs. Also, if the animal is too large for the premises (like a llama in a small apartment), the landlord may reject the ESA.

    The Air Carrier Access Act

    According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, any animal that has been trained to assist persons with disabilities is considered a service animal under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), and the ACAA also pertains to emotional support animals. (If you are flying with an emotional support animal, documentation may be required.) According to the ACAA, whether or not the animal can fly in the cabin depends in large part on their size and whether or not they pose a threat to other passengers.

    The Air Carrier Access Act protects the rights of service animals and emotional support animals by allowing them to accompany their owners in the cabin of the aircraft during a flight, and there can be no additional fees charged for the animal. Although most service animals tend to be dogs and cats, many different types of service animals are permitted to accompany their owner in the cabin of an aircraft. Airlines are never required to accept snakes, reptiles, ferrets, rodents, or spiders, and airlines also have the right to exclude the following animals from flying in the cabin of the aircraft:

    • Animals that are too large or heavy
    • Those that pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others
    • Animals that cause a disruption of cabin service
    • Specific animals that are prohibited from entering a foreign country

    When flying with emotional support animals, airlines can request specific documentation and 48 hours advanced notice. The documentation must be dated within one year from the date of your scheduled flight. It must also state that you have a mental or emotional disability that is recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

    Conditions that qualify include:

    • Learning Disabilities
    • Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
    • Phobias
    • Anxiety Disorders
    • Depression
    • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

    The documentation must state that your emotional support animal is needed as an accommodation for air travel or for activity at your destination. A licensed mental health professional must provide the documentation, and the patient must be under their professional care. Finally, the documentation must include the licensed healthcare professional’s date and type of license and the jurisdiction or state in which the license was issued.

    Airlines cannot refuse to allow your emotional support animal onboard because it makes other people uncomfortable. Your emotional support animal can accompany you in the cabin of an airplane during a flight, but airline regulations may vary based on the type of ESA you are traveling with. If the animal is small enough, you may be permitted to keep the animal in your lap. The animal may also occupy the space beneath the seat in front of you. Under no conditions may the animal obstruct the aisle or the emergency exit.

    While onboard, your emotional support animal must behave properly. If the animal barks, snarls, is unruly, snaps, is vicious, runs around, jumps on other passengers, or causes them undue stress, it will not be accepted onboard. If your flight will last for eight hours or more, the airline may also require you to provide documentation concerning your animal’s need to relieve itself.

    Training Your Emotional Support Animal

    ESAs do not technically require special training, but it is important that your emotional support animal be given basic behavioral training to ensure that the animal behaves properly in all situations. You can train your ESA by yourself, or you can attend group training classes to help socialize your animal. You may also want to consider contacting a local trainer for assistance.

    Training is important with an emotional support animal. As the owner of an ESA, you do not have to pay fees or damage deposits in connection with your emotional support animal, but you are still responsible for any damages an ESA causes to a property. Your landlord may refuse to let you keep an ESA if it is shown to cause significant destruction or present a safety hazard. Airlines can reject passengers and their ESAs for the same reasons.

    What Are the Benefits of an ESA Vest?

    An ESA vest helps to immediately identify your dog as an emotional support animal, but your dog is not required to wear one. Still, many people with emotional support animals choose to have their ESA wear a vest or harness, since it can help to avoid confusion in public places.

    For those who are dealing with emotional and mental disabilities, emotional support animals can be a life-changing solution that helps manage stress and anxiety. Much like a service animal, they will become a trusted companion. On the other hand, if you’re just trying to register your lizard so they can come with you on a trip, consider just leaving them at home. In fact, some states have laws against misrepresenting a pet as an emotional support animal.

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