In this article, we will provide a brief overview of the Fair Housing Act and the ACAA. We will discuss what protections these laws give to owners of emotional support animals and how landlords and airlines must comply. We will also review ESA qualification requirements and how you may qualify for an ESA.

Emotional Support Animal Owners are Protected by Two Federal Laws:

What is the Fair Housing Act (FHA)?

Under the Fair Housing Act, landlords must reasonably accommodate tenants who own emotional support animals, even if the building has a policy that prohibits pets. The U.S. Department of Housing issues guidance on how the provisions of the FHA are implemented and enforces Fair Housing rules.

What is the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA)?

Under the ACAA, airlines must allow passengers to fly with their ESA in the cabin free of charge. The U.S. Department of Transportation issues guidance relating to how airlines should comply with the ACAA.  

Emotional Support Animal Laws infographic by ESA Doctors
A summary of the two laws that keep your Emotional Support Animal protected

The Fair Housing Act, with certain limited exceptions, applies to all housing in every state, including rentals, co-ops and condominiums. The ACAA applies to U.S. airlines and flights within the U.S., as well flights originating from or arriving in the U.S. In addition, many states have enacted their own rules which also give housing rights to owners of emotional support animal. These state rules are often very similar to Fair Housing rules.

In order to qualify for the benefits and protections afforded by these federal laws, you must qualify for an ESA letter from a licensed health care provider. A valid ESA letter from a licensed professional is the only way to qualify for an emotional support animal under both the FHA and the ACAA. If you are having a hard time finding a health care provider that is knowledgeable about emotional support animals, ESA Doctors can help connect you to a professional that is licensed for your state. You can start the process of qualifying your current or future animal companion as an emotional support animal by clicking on the link below.

Three easy steps to get an ESA Letter with ESA Doctors

Click here to get started on qualifying for your ESA letter

Emotional Support Animal Housing Law

The Fair Housing Act’s provisions regarding emotional support animals were designed so housing providers could not discriminate against a disabled person’s need for an emotional support animal. Under Fair Housing rules, ESAs are recognized as a type of assistance animal that is a “reasonable accommodation” for a person with a disability such as depression, anxiety or PTSD. ESAs are not considered normal pets under Fair Housing rules, and are thus exempt from restrictions a housing provider may place on pets.

HUD is the government agency that oversees the Fair Housing Act and investigates discrimination complaints against housing providers. HUD releases guidance regarding how landlords and tenants should comply with Fair Housing rules relating to ESAs. HUD issued its most recent guidance in January of 2020.

Under Federal Fair Housing Rules, an ESA is not considered a normal pet. Therefore a building’s policies regarding pets do not apply to an ESA.

Rights of Emotional Support Animal Owners under ESA Housing Rules

Landlords, apartment managers, HOA’s and co-op boards must follow Fair Housing rules and guidance from HUD when it comes to a tenant’s request to live with their ESA. Most types of housing are covered under the FHA, but there are some exceptions for smaller landlords. Most notably, owner-occupied buildings with no more than four units and single-family houses sold or rented by the owner without the use of an agent are exempt from Fair Housing rules regarding ESAs.

Under the Fair Housing Act:

  • Housing providers are not permitted to impose breed, weight and size limitations on ESAs.
  • Housing providers are not allowed to charge fees or deposits in connection with ESAs.
  • Housing providers are not allowed to request detailed information regarding a tenant’s condition or medical history.
  • Housing providers can deny an ESA if accommodating the ESA would impose an “undue financial burden” on the landlord or if the landlord determines that the ESA poses a threat to the health or safety of others.
ESA Fair housing act
The Fair Housing Act allows you to LEGALLY live in rented apartments, co-ops, condos, homes, etc. with your emotional support animal.

Under HUD guidance, housing providers must consider a tenant’s ESA request and answer within 10 days. Housing providers are permitted to ask for documented proof from the tenant, which comes in the form of an ESA recommendation letter from a licensed healthcare professional. HUD guidance generally requires a good faith dialogue between the housing provider and tenant to resolve any issues surrounding an ESA request. Housing providers that fail to fulfill their obligations under the Fair Housing Act when it comes to ESA requests and unfairly discriminate against ESA owners face potential action from HUD and civil liability.

If you have already qualified for an ESA and possess an ESA letter and are ready to seek accommodation from your landlord, you may find it helpful to read this guide to renting an apartment with your ESA.

Emotional Support Animal Travel Law

Under the ACAA, passengers have a right to fly with their emotional support animal in the airplane cabin free of charge. The Department of Transportation issues guidance from time to time regarding how airlines and passengers should comply with the requirements of the ACAA. The DOT issued its most recent guidance regarding travelling with emotional support animals in 2019.

The ACAA’s rules regarding ESAs and air travel apply to all U.S. airlines, all domestic flights and all flights to or from the United States. Airlines will also generally have their own policy outlining requirements for emotional support animals. It is strongly recommended that you check in advance with your airline to see what their rules are well ahead of your travel date. You should always contact your airline at least 48 hours before your departure date to make sure you have submitted all of the necessary documentation and have met all of their requirements for traveling with an ESA.

Airlines cannot charge you a fee to fly with your Emotional Support Animal.

Rules for Emotional Support Animals on Flights

Under the ACAA and guidance from the DOT, airlines and passengers with emotional support animals must comply with certain rules:

  • The airline is not allowed to charge fees in connection with your emotional support animal.
  • Airlines must accommodate dogs, cats and miniature horses that are ESAs.
  • Airlines can restrict ESAs to one per passenger.
  • Airlines are not allowed to ban an ESA solely because it is a certain breed, but they are allowed to deny boarding if they determine a particular ESA poses a safety or health risk to others.
  • Airlines may not apply categorical restrictions on ESAs over a certain weight. However, airlines are allowed to determine “whether the animal is too large or too heavy to be accommodated in the cabin….” You should always contact your airline to see how they handle requests for large ESAs.
  • The airline may ask that you contact them at least 48 hours before departure to make sure you have all the necessary airline forms submitted.
  • The airline may request that your veterinarian complete a form regarding your ESA’s health.
  • The airline can deny boarding for ESAs that are “unusual animals” such as snakes, other reptiles, ferrets, rodents and spiders.
ESA dog in the cabin of an airplane. ESA Doctors airline image.
The ACAA allows you to LEGALLY fly for free with your emotional support animal.

Emotional Support Animal Qualification Requirements

The difference between a legitimate Emotional Support Animal and a pet is a letter from a licensed therapist. Your pet may functionally already be acting as your ESA, but you cannot avail yourself of the rights given to ESA owners until you qualify your pet with an ESA letter. A licensed professional may recommend an ESA if they believe one or more ESAs would help you with a mental illness or emotional disability.

An ESA recommendation letter:

  • is written by a licensed health care professional or licensed mental health professional (LMHP);
  • states that you suffer from a mental or emotional disability (such as severe anxiety, depression, or phobia) and that the ESA is necessary to alleviate symptoms of your disability;
  • must be written on the therapist’s letterhead and be signed and dated; and
  • must include the LMHP’s license and contact information so the housing provider or airline can verify the letter

Your pet is not recognized as an ESA in the eyes of the law until you qualify for an ESA letter.

ESA laws also protect the privacy of an ESA owner. Landlords and airlines are not allowed to request specific details regarding an ESA owner’s condition, and they cannot ask for medical records or a medical examination. ESA owners have a right to protect sensitive and confidential information regarding their disability.

ESA Letter Renewal Requirements 

For purposes of air travel, ESA letters are only valid for one year from the issue date. Fair Housing rules are silent when it comes to the issue of whether an ESA letter expires. However, many landlords will insist on a newer ESA recommendation if the letter is more than a year old. In addition, the therapist many not validate an ESA letter or submit additional housing forms if the ESA letter is very dated without a more recent evaluation and letter on file. It is therefore recommended that ESA letters for housing also be renewed at least once a year.

Qualifying for an ESA Letter

If you are having trouble finding a licensed healthcare professional, ESA Doctors can help connect you to a professional that is licensed for your state. The licensed professionals that work with ESA Doctors are aware of federal ESA rules and are familiar with the benefits that emotional support animals can have for their owners. These licensed professionals can help assess whether an emotional support animal is right for you and, if you qualify, can write an ESA recommendation letter that you can submit to your landlord or airline.

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