Did you know that in the United States, emotional support animal owners are protected by federal and state laws? Emotional support animals — or in short, “ESA” — are recognized as a necessity for people with mental health disorders. But what exactly is an emotional support animal? How are they different from service dogs? How do you legally qualify for an ESA? And where can and can’t you take your ESA? Read on for answers to all these questions and more.
Just what exactly is an emotional support animal?
You’ve probably heard of an emotional support animal and know that they somehow relate to people with mental health issues, but what exactly separates an ESA from your normal pet?
Emotional support animals are defined by federal and sometimes state laws. Under the U.S. Department of Housing’s guidelines, the following animals can be an ESA:
The companionship of an animal can have a calming effect on a person and reduce stress, anxiety, and anguish. Emotional support animals are recommended by therapists and doctors to alleviate symptoms of mental or emotional health conditions.
An ESA is not a special type of animal — in fact, they are often an existing pet. An animal is only legally designated as an ESA when the owner obtains a recommendation letter from their healthcare provider.
How do you prove that you have an emotional support animal?
To prove that you have an emotional support animal, you need a signed recommendation letter (known as an “ESA letter”) from a licensed healthcare professional. You can ask for an ESA letter from the following professionals:
- Social Workers
- Registered Nurses
Your ESA letter must come from an actively licensed healthcare professional. The following items by themselves do NOT legitimately qualify someone for an ESA:
- ID Cards
- Special Harnesses or Vests
Landlords do not have to accept a certificate, registration, ID card, or vest as proof that an animal is an ESA. Landlords are entitled to see a signed ESA letter from a validly licensed healthcare provider.
What conditions qualify for an emotional support animal?
To qualify for an emotional support animal, a person must have a psychiatric “disability,” which has a specific meaning under the law. A psychiatric disability is a mental health condition that substantially limits one or more major life activities. A licensed healthcare professional is best suited to determine whether you have a qualifying condition.
These are the most common conditions that ESAs can help with:
- Severe Anxiety
- Bi-Polar Disorder
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Panic Disorders
What is the benefit of having an emotional support animal?
The major benefit of having an emotional support animal is that landlords, HOAs, co-ops, and condos have to reasonably accommodate your ESA, even if your building bans pets. Even if your building has a strict policy that doesn’t allow any pets on the premises, emotional support animals are exempt from housing limitations.
These are some of the benefits of having an ESA:
- Ability to live in “no-pets” buildings.
- Exemption from pet size and weight restrictions.
- No pet fees, deposits, or pet application fees.
What is the difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal?
Emotional support animals are often confused with service animals, but there are key differences between them. Here are some examples of how they differ:
|Emotional Support Animals||Service Animals|
|Can be a dog, cat, rabbit, fish, gerbil, bird, or other small, domesticated animal.||Can only be a dog.|
|Do not require any specialized training.||Must be fully trained to perform a task or job relating to a disability.|
|Used for mental and emotional health disabilities.||Used for both physical and mental/emotional health disabilities.|
|Right to access housing, even in no-pet buildings.||Right to access housing and venues open to the public like stores and restaurants.|
|No longer can board flights free of charge.||Can board flights free of charge.|
|Requires an ESA letter from a licensed healthcare professional||No documentation is required, although some psychiatric service dog owners obtain PSD letters.|
|Governed by the Fair Housing Act, HUD guidelines, and state laws.||Governed by the Americans with Disabilities Act, Air Carrier Access Act, and state laws.|
How do you get an ESA letter?
If you’re interested in getting an ESA letter you can submit to your landlord, you have a few options. The first place to start is by consulting your existing mental health specialist in person or remotely.
If you don’t have anyone you’re currently seeing for your mental health, the best bet is finding a mental health professional with experience with emotional support animals. Some therapists and doctors are unfamiliar with emotional support animal regulations and how to write ESA letters, so it’s important to find the right person.
You’re allowed to get an ESA letter remotely, and consulting an online provider can be a great option. As a result of the pandemic, getting an ESA letter remotely almost became a necessity.
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