In this article, we explain which laws protect owners of emotional support animals (ESAs) and how housing providers must comply. We will also review ESA requirements and explain how you can qualify for an ESA.

Emotional Support Animal Owners are Protected by Federal Laws

What is the Fair Housing Act?

Under the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA), landlords must reasonably accommodate tenants who own emotional support animals, even if the building has a policy that prohibits pets. This applies to all 50 states. The US Department of Housing (HUD) issues guidance on how the provisions of the FHA are implemented and enforces Fair Housing rules.

What about state laws?

Many states, including California, New York, and Florida, have their own set of rules that also protect ESA owners in housing. These rules often closely mirror federal FHA rules and add an extra layer of protection.

What is the Air Carrier Access Act?

The US Department of Transportation (DOT) issued its latest set of rules in 2021 that allow airlines to no longer recognize emotional support animals on flights. As a result, ESAs in the U.S. are no longer given special consideration on flights; they are treated as normal pets. 

Psychiatric service dogs (PSD) are still protected under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), and all airlines must allow passengers with PSDs (and other types of service dogs) to fly in the cabin free of charge. 

How to Get a Psychiatric Service Dog Letter

Emotional Support Animal Laws
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Emotional Support Animal Housing Law

The FHA’s provisions regarding emotional support animals were designed so that housing providers can’t discriminate against a person for needing 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 that impairs life activities, including but not limited to 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 FHA and investigates discrimination complaints against housing providers. HUD releases guidance on how landlords and tenants should comply with Fair Housing rules relating to ESAs. The most recent guidance was issued in January 2020.

The Fair Housing Act, with certain limited exceptions, applies to all housing in every state, including rentals, co-ops, and condominiums. To qualify for the benefits and protections afforded by the FHA, you must obtain an ESA letter from a licensed healthcare provider. A valid ESA letter from a licensed professional is the only way to qualify for an emotional support animal under the FHA.

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, HOAs, 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:

  • cannot impose breed, weight, and size limitations on ESAs.
  • cannot charge fees or deposits in connection with ESAs.
  • cannot request information regarding a tenant’s condition or medical history.
  • can only 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. 

Dialogue and negotiations: HUD guidance 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, 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.

Psychiatric Service Dog Travel Law

Although emotional support animals are no longer welcomed on U.S. flights, airlines still accept psychiatric service dogs by law. Psychiatric service dogs are similar to emotional support animals but are trained to provide a service or task for their disabled owner.

To fly with a psychiatric service dog (PSD), you must provide documentation for your PSD to the airlines at least 48 hours before your flight. If your flight is longer than eight hours, you must also provide additional documentation detailing how your animal will relieve itself during the flight.

Emotional Support Dog on Airplane - ESA Doctors
Select airlines voluntarily allow your ESA to fly for free. All airlines allow your PSD to fly for free.

Emotional Support Animal State Laws

Many states have their own emotional support animal laws. These laws are usually very similar to federal law and add an extra layer of protection. For example, New York and Florida have state-specific rules for emotional support animals. 

Some states have rules that have different requirements from the federal regulations that you should be aware of. For example, California changed its rules in 2022 to have a 30-day waiting period to get an ESA letter if you are seeing a therapist or doctor for the first time. 

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 act 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 can recommend an ESA if they believe one or more ESAs would help you with a mental illness or emotional disability.

An ESA recommendation letter:

  • states that you suffer from a mental or emotional disability and that the ESA is necessary to alleviate symptoms of your disability;
  • the type of animal(s) for which the reasonable accommodation is needed;
  • is written by a licensed healthcare professional or licensed mental health professional (LMHP);
  • 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 can verify the letter.

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

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

ESA Rights & Requirements - Infographic

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Qualifying for an ESA Letter

If you are having trouble finding a licensed healthcare professional, ESA Doctors can help connect you to a professional who is licensed for your state. The licensed professionals working with ESA Doctors are aware of federal ESA rules and are familiar with the benefits of emotional support animals 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 participating airline. 

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