Exploring Emotional Support Animals

Whether it’s walking through an airport or talking with a friend, it’s likely that you’ve encountered “emotional support animals” recently. As mental health advocacy has become more popular in Western society, so has the idea that animals are beneficial to our emotional wellbeing. For those, however, who haven’t dealt with the process first hand, the concept can be shrouded in mystery. Just what is an emotional support animal? Can anybody have one? Are they service animals, or something different?

What is an Emotional Support Animal (ESA)? 

The unconditional love, support and affection that animals give us are therapeutic for all humans, but it can be instrumental in the treatment of those with mental illnesses. Research has shown that people with bipolar disorder, PTSD, severe anxiety, and other disabling conditions have a lessening of symptoms when around their animal companion. These special pets can help prevent panic attacks, depression, or simply help ease symptoms merely by existing. 

By law, an Emotional Support Animal is allowed in areas that pets might not be allowed, typically on aircraft or in housing that has been classified as “pet free.” A person with a registered ESA is permitted to bring their pet into the aircraft cabin without paying the airline a fee, and would not lose or be denied housing for owning such a pet. 

An ESA, though typically a dog or cat, can be any type of animal. They are not considered “service animals” and have a separate legal distinction that governs their status—though both service animals and Emotional Support Animals can wear vests to distinguish them from regular pets. 

What makes an ESA different from a service animal? 

In contrast to an ESA, a service animal is not a pet. It is a “working” animal that provides a particular service, typically medical, to a disabled person. The most commonly seen service animals in fiction are guide dogs for the visually impaired, but the world of service dogs goes far beyond that. Dogs can be trained to sense seizures, detect changes in blood sugar levels, retrieve items for the physically disabled, or even help remind someone to take medication on time. These dogs are trained intensively and must be obtained from an organization that specifically specializes in them—they are not pets that have been trained after the fact. 

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, registered service animals cannot be denied entry to any buildings, and regardless of their size, must be allowed anywhere their owner is. They are deemed medically necessary, and it is a violation of federal law for them to be refused. 

Can anybody get an Emotional Support Animal? 

As Emotional Support Animals are considered treatment for those with mental illnesses, one must be under the care of a licensed psychiatrist. The psychiatrist writes a specifically formulated letter that the patient carries with them or keeps on file to prove the status of their ESA when needed. A general therapist or psychologist is not able to provide this documentation. 

Mentally-abled people are discouraged from feigning illness to receive ESA status for their pet. Not only are psychiatrists unlikely to write letters for healthy people, but it can make it more difficult for people with actual illnesses to be taken seriously. Due to the amount of people who have abused ESA and service dog laws, amendments to laws are being made to prevent fraudulent registrations.

I have a mental illness. How do I go about getting my pet registered as an ESA?

Visit your psychiatrist and tell them you’d like to get your pet registered. It’s likely that your psychiatrist has done this before and might already have a form letter written, though it’s advised to give them at least three days of notice before you need it. Be sure that it has your psychiatrist’s license information and is on their practice’s letterhead.