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Emotional support animals (ESAs) help their owners cope with various psychiatric disabilities and provide comfort for those who struggle with anxiety, depression, or acute stress. Such animals are not considered pets in the eyes of state or federal law. In most cases, emotional support animals are dogs, but this category is not restricted to a certain species.

Emotional support dogs and service dogs have different roles and rights. A service dog is trained to perform a specific task or a set of tasks to help an individual with a disability such as hearing impairment or vision loss. Service animals have access to all public places, whereas emotional support animals don't. Moreover, emotional support animals do not require special training.

Who Qualifies for an Emotional Support Animal 

Only an individual with a mental disability can qualify for an emotional support animal. The thing is, such disabilities often stay invisible and can be hard to detect. No wonder many people attempt to take advantage of the law and abuse the use of support dogs. Therefore, a disability must be certified by a licensed mental health professional. Emotional discomfort or a strong desire to have a pet do not make you legally qualified for the emotional support animal.

Another important thing is that your animal should provide notable benefit in the aspect of your mental health to qualify as an emotional support animal without fraud.

Emotional Support Animals & ESA Letters

The ESA letter is legal documentation that allows an individual to be accompanied by an emotional support animal. Mental health professionals have a right to issue ESA letters for people with disabilities who may benefit from an emotional support animal. This document is crucial in specific contexts when regular pets are not permitted: rental housing, for instance.

The Fair Housing Act

According to the Fair Housing Act, landlords are required to provide "reasonable accommodation" to individuals who are officially qualified to have emotional support animals, provided that a disabled person has an ESA letter from a mental health professional. The Fair Housing Act is applicable to most types of housing.

When a housing provider receives a request concerning an emotional support animal, he must consider two things:

  • whether a person who makes the request, in fact, has a disability;
  • whether a support animal in question truly alleviates this individual's symptoms and provides emotional support that improves their quality of life.


Air Travel with an Emotional Support Animal

In 2020, the US Department of Transportation announced that according to a revision of the Air Carrier Access Act, emotional support animals can no longer accompany their owners during air travel. Now they are treated as pets when it comes to most airlines. However, some airlines, such as Air Canada or Westjet, still allow emotional support dogs on board.

The Air Carrier Act was revised due to the fact that people without disabilities started abusing ESAs by trying to bring their pets, who aren't emotional support animals, on a plane. Individually trained service animals who perform tasks for their physically disabled owners are still allowed on board.

Emotional Support Dogs Registration

The good news is that getting an emotional support animal can be free. If you in fact qualify for an emotional support animal and possess a letter issued by a mental health professional, there is an option to adopt a dog from the local shelter or a rescue organization. Just think about it: you get to save an animal's life, and in turn, this dog helps you cope with psychological problems.

If you only consider getting a dog of a specific breed, which is hard to come by at a shelter, it is recommended to search for responsible breeders who will provide you with a healthy animal with the right temperament.

As it has already been mentioned, emotional support dogs are not considered service animals according to state and federal law, therefore, they require no registration. The only procedure you need to undergo to have a legitimate ESA is a consultation with a licensed therapist or psychologist. The official ESA letter makes your animal legitimate.

The legal ESA letter can be issued for free by a licensed mental health professional if you are already seeing one. Free ESA letters that can be obtained through the Internet are not legally binding and have no real value. Note that forged or non-legitimate documents are considered a crime if offered to landlords, public institutions, or transportation companies.

If a person claims the need for multiple emotional support animals, this claim should be officially supported by a doctor. Each of the animals in question must provide psychological relief to the owner.

Generally, there are many controversies regarding emotional support animals and their rights. A service animal is allowed in public places because it is trained to behave, whereas an untrained emotional support dog can bark at other people or show another unwanted reaction.

Another issue is scientific inquiry. While it is clear that animals have a wonderful ability to minimize stress and anxiety, there is no sufficient scientific research that proves a significant effect on a person's disability. Existing studies suggest that the psychological benefit is smaller than many hope for.

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