Interested in an emotional support animal (ESA) or a psychiatric service dog (PSD)? Wondering what type of animal can become an ESA? Ready to get an ESA and want to make sure you’re doing it the right way?

In this article, we will cover how to make an animal companion a legitimate emotional support animal by qualifying for an ESA letter. We will also summarize some of the rules and regulations that apply to ESAs to help you understand your rights as an ESA owner.

Federal and state laws give special rights to people with mental or emotional health issues that use a companion animal for support.

Emotional support animals can accompany their owners in housing (even in buildings with strict no-pets policies) under the Fair Housing Act. Landlords can never charge ESA owners any type of pet fee or deposit. 

In addition, emotional support animals are exempt from pet rules regarding size, weight, and breed!

ESAs are exempt from pet rules because they are not considered pets. They are legally recognized assistance animals that give people an equal opportunity to enjoy housing to the same extent as everyone else. 

Below are some basic steps to consider if you want to get an emotional support animal.

Steps to getting an emotional support animal

  1. Determine if you would benefit from an ESA’s support
  2. Connect with a licensed mental health professional in our network
  3. Choose the type of animal to adopt, if you currently do not have a pet
  4. Train your ESA to be a good citizen
  5. Properly use your ESA letter

If you believe you would benefit from an emotional support animal, complete the ESA Questionnaire in the link below to see if you qualify for a legitimate ESA letter.

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1. Determine if You Would Potentially Benefit From an ESA’s Support

Not all disabilities are visible, and there is nothing braver than seeking help for mental illness.

Emotional support animals are available to individuals suffering from a disability, which can be a mental illness or emotional distress condition. 

Pursuant to federal law, an ESA recommendation letter must come from a licensed health care provider. Recognizing that you may have a condition that could benefit from professional help is always the first and most important step in addressing a potential mental or emotional illness.

Several conditions are recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM V) for which an emotional support animal can be beneficial. These include:

If you think you may be suffering from one of these conditions, or if you are unsure about what condition you have but have been suffering ongoing mental or emotional distress, the next step is to reach out to a licensed professional for help. If you would like to look for a licensed professional with specific knowledge about emotional support animals, you may search for one here.

2. Connect with a Licensed Health Care Provider

If you have recognized that you may have a mental or emotional illness and need help, you deserve to be commended because that can be an incredibly difficult process that takes honest self-assessment and courage. 

Unfortunately, a stigma is still associated with mental illness, and many people fear that seeking help is a sign of weakness or that others will judge them for reaching out for assistance.

The best way to seek help is by talking to a therapist with whom you already have a relationship. It can be challenging for individuals without a therapist to find the right licensed professional.  Sometimes people are ready to take the step of finding a therapist, but they become discouraged by the search to find the right person for them.

In addition, therapists can also be prohibitively expensive for many people, and scheduling time with a therapist can be tough for those with jobs, schooling, or family obligations. It can be challenging to find a therapist who is knowledgeable about ESAs if that is what you are interested in exploring.

If you are facing these obstacles, you may benefit from finding help through a therapist online. An ESA letter from a therapist who provides services remotely is just as valid as an ESA letter from a therapist seen in person. 

In fact, the U.S. Department of Housing has issued guidance confirming that legitimate ESA letters can come from therapists who provide services remotely, including over the internet.

A legitimate ESA letter must:

  • Come from a licensed health care professional, which includes professionals such as psychologists, psychiatrists, registered nurses, nurse practitioners, physician’s assistants, social workers, and counselors
  • Be on the licensed professional’s letterhead, contain their licensing information, and be signed and dated by the professional
  • Establish that the tenant has a disability and that an ESA would provide benefits for alleviating symptoms of that disability 

If you do not have a therapist or are having trouble finding one familiar with ESAs, ESA Doctors can help connect you to a health care provider who is licensed to work in your state. The health care providers that work with ESA Doctors are knowledgeable about ESAs and can evaluate whether an ESA is appropriate for you.

3. Adopt an ESA

If you already have a pet, that pet can serve as your ESA if you qualify for an ESA letter. If you do not have an ESA and are interested in adopting one, we recommend reaching out to your local animal shelter or rescue organization to find your perfect ESA. 

If you have your heart set on a specific breed that is hard to find in a shelter or rescue, another option is to reach out to a responsible breeder.

Owning an ESA is a long-term commitment and choosing an ESA with the right temperament and attributes for your situation is important. Having a strong connection and bond with your emotional support animal can help make your ESA more effective in relieving the symptoms of your disability. 

It is also essential to choose an animal with the right temperament. If you are dealing with depression or anxiety, the animal should bring you a sense of well-being and comfort in times of stress.

Adopting an ESA could potentially save 2 lives.
Adopting an ESA can help make your home happier.

A variety of animals can serve as an emotional support animal, including:

According to the Department of Housing, an ESA can be any small, domesticated animal traditionally kept in the home for pleasure. 

4. Training Your Emotional Support Animal

One important thing to note about ESAs is that they do not require special training. This is a common point of confusion that people have about ESAs. ESAs differ from service dogs, which have greater public access rights under different laws. 

Service dogs must be trained to perform specific tasks for the disabled – for example, a dog that guides a blind handler. On the other hand, ESAs do not need any special training – they provide support and comfort through their companionship for people with mental illnesses and emotional distress.

Even though your ESA does not need special training related to a disability, it is important that your ESA, like all pets, be given basic training to ensure they behave appropriately in all situations. 

ESA owners do not have to pay pet fees or deposits in connection with their ESA, but they are responsible for any damage caused by their ESA to property. In addition, landlords can reject an ESA if it is unruly and the landlord determines the ESA could harm others or create a safety issue.

Another important reason to have a well-behaved ESA is that each ESA owner is an ambassador for all ESA owners. It helps all ESA owners when your ESA can demonstrate that it is a model citizen to your landlord and neighbors. 

You can provide basic training for your ESA yourself. It may also be helpful to attend group training classes to assist in socializing your dog. If training is not something you are able to do by yourself, or you are a novice pet owner and need help, you can look for support from a local trainer. They will be able to give you hands-on tips on how to train your ESA.

5. Properly Use Your ESA Letter

Family with an Emotional Support Animal
ESA registration is not recognized by airlines or landlords.

If your licensed health care provider has determined an ESA would benefit you and has given you an ESA letter, it is now important to understand how to use your ESA letter. For housing accommodation, you should submit your ESA letter to your landlord and let them know you are requesting reasonable accommodations for your emotional support animal according to Fair Housing rules. 

Your landlord will have 10 days to respond to your request and can only deny you in limited circumstances, such as if the ESA poses a danger to others.

Sometimes landlords will demand to see certification or registration for your ESA. These landlords are misinformed or unaware of actual ESA regulations. Certifications and registrations do absolutely nothing to legitimately qualify an ESA. The Department of Housing has warned tenants against using sites that sell certificates, registration numbers, or licenses for emotional support animals.

The only way to qualify for an ESA for housing purposes is to obtain a letter from a licensed health care professional. Some people use the term “certification” interchangeably with obtaining an ESA letter, but there is an important distinction between those two concepts: one will validly qualify your ESA, and the other will not.

Once your landlord grants your request for accommodation of your ESA, your ESA can live in your residence even if the building, HOA, or co-op has a no-pets policy. The housing provider cannot impose breed and weight restrictions and cannot charge fees or deposits relating to the ESA. 

If your landlord had previously charged a deposit for your pet which later qualified to become an ESA, you may be entitled to a refund of that deposit.

Some people, unfortunately, try to pass off their pets as emotional support animals without a real ESA letter. These people will face embarrassment and rejection when their landlord turns them away for not being able to provide proper documentation. 

It is never a good idea to pretend your pet is an ESA without proper documentation. Not only is it unethical, but it harms the reputation of legitimate ESA owners.

Flying with a Psychiatric Service Dog (PSD)

In 2021, the U.S. Department of Transportation passed new rules allowing airlines to deny accommodations for emotional support animals. As a result, U.S. airlines will no longer accept emotional support animals on board for free. 

The only type of assistance animal allowed to board the cabin free of charge is service dogs, including psychiatric service dogs (PSD). Each airline has their policy when it comes to flying with PSDs. 

If you are flying with a psychiatric service dog, you should submit your request to the airline at least 48 hours before your departure. Airlines will require you complete and submit the DOT’s Service Animal Air Transportation Form prior to flying. We recommend reaching out to the airline as soon as possible to ensure you have enough time to gather all the necessary paperwork.

DOT Form - Service Animal Health Behavior Training Form - Download -- ESA DoctorsDownload the DOT Form – Service Animal Air Transportation Form (pdf) here.

Once your airline has accepted your PSD documentation, you are all set to fly with your PSD in the cabin. Airlines can impose reasonable and appropriate restrictions to control the movement of PSDs in the cabin. That means the animal may be required to be kept in a pet carrier, stay on the floor at the passenger’s feet, or be on a leash or tether during the flight.

You do not need any special license, registration, or certification to own a psychiatric service dog. The important consideration is whether the dog is trained to perform a job or task relating to the handler’s mental health disability. 

Emotional support animals do not qualify as psychiatric service dogs because they are not trained to perform a job or task relating to a mental health disability. That is why ESAs are given more limited rights than PSDs.Although you do not need special documentation for a PSD, many PSD owners obtain PSD letters. A PSD letter is a signed letter from a licensed healthcare professional determining whether the person has a qualifying disability. PSD letters are used as backup documentation by PSD owners.

Frequently Asked Questions about Getting an Emotional Support Animal

1. Can I have more than one ESA?

Yes, you are allowed to have multiple emotional support animals. Each animal must be covered by your ESA letter. One letter can cover all of your ESAs. If you plan on having more than one emotional support animal, raise the issue in advance with your therapist or doctor.

2. Where can I register or certify my emotional support animal?

You do not need to register or certify an ESA. The only documentation you will need as a proof is an ESA letter signed by a licensed healthcare professional.

3. Can my existing pet be an emotional support animal?

Absolutely. Your pet may already be functioning as your emotional support animal by providing relief during times of mental and emotional distress. With an ESA letter, you can qualify your pet as your official emotional support animal.

4. Can my landlord say no to my emotional support animal?

Landlords can only reject your ESA request in certain limited circumstances. The major exemption is if they have evidence your ESA is a health or safety hazard to other tenants. They cannot reject your ESA simply because of a no-pets policy or because they don’t like your animal’s specific breed.

Emotional Support Animals Provide Real Support

Many people have found relief from debilitating mental health conditions through the companionship of an ESA. ESAs provide invaluable support that has helped countless individuals lead happy, fulfilling lives. 

ESA owners have testified that their ESAs help their severe depression by giving them a reason to live and go outside, providing comfort for their post-traumatic stress and relieving their anxiety, allowing them to deal with their chronic insomnia.If you are interested in qualifying for an ESA but are having trouble finding assistance, we can help connect you to a licensed healthcare provider knowledgeable about ESAs that provides services remotely.

Start a better life with your Emotional Support Animal.

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If you have a loved one interested in getting an emotional support animal, share the simple steps below with them.

Steps to getting an emotional support animal - Infographic