When someone feels down, stressed, or alone, snuggling with a pet is a comforting pick-me-up. For people who struggle with mental health conditions, connecting with an animal can mean the difference between ongoing suffering and lasting emotional well-being. Known as emotional support animals, these critters are more than just pets. They’re part of an overall treatment plan developed by a mental health professional.
Mental health is a major concern for children and adults, particularly for adolescents in school. According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than 42% of high school students experienced hopelessness and persistent sadness in 2021. Many of these individuals may not be aware that they could qualify to receive accommodations for pets that contribute to their mental wellness. To ensure that people with mental health conditions receive the best possible care, it’s vital that they and the people who support them know how to get an emotional support animal.
What Is an Emotional Support Animal?
An emotional support animal, often referred to as an ESA, is an animal that offers companionship and emotional support to a person who has a diagnosed mental health disorder. An ESA might help alleviate symptoms from a range of conditions, such as:
- Phobias, such as agoraphobia
The mere presence of an ESA provides therapeutic benefits, including reducing feelings of loneliness, sadness, and fear. For example, a college student who has severe anxiety about their classwork may be able to reduce their symptoms, such as a rapid heart rate or shortness of breath, simply by holding and petting an ESA.
How to Know if You Could Benefit From an Emotional Support Animal
In many cases, a person discovers that an ESA is beneficial to their mental health when they realize that their current pet improves their mood. If you have been diagnosed with a mental health condition and find that spending time with your favorite animal has a therapeutic effect, it’s likely that an ESA would be an asset to your treatment. Your mental health treatment provider can also help you determine whether an ESA would be a positive addition to your treatment plan.
How to Get an Emotional Support Animal
Getting an ESA is generally easier than obtaining a service animal. With the right information and assistance, you could soon be on your way to bringing home a support animal.
In some ways, getting an ESA is no different from getting any other kind of pet. You find an animal that you enjoy and adopt or purchase it. However, there are some special considerations for pets that are support animals. Follow these steps to get an ESA:
- Consider the expense: Paying for veterinary care, food, and toys can quickly get expensive. Think about how much you are comfortable spending on an ESA’s ongoing care and whether a certain kind of animal would be more affordable.
- Speak to roommates or family members: If you share a living space with other people, it’s important to talk to them about your decision to get an ESA and how it will affect their home environment. To avoid conflict, address any concerns that they may have before getting an ESA.
- Select an animal: Think about how much time and energy your new pet will require in terms of exercise, bathing, and grooming. Look for an animal that makes you feel calm and relaxed and that doesn’t increase your feelings of stress or anxiety.
- Adopt your ESA: You may have to fill out paperwork or pay a fee when adopting your pet. Once your application has been approved, it’s time to build a relationship with your ESA.
There’s a natural period of adjustment after bringing a new pet home, so don’t panic if your ESA initially seems nervous or a little confused. After spending time together, those feelings will likely disappear as you begin establishing a bond and routine.
If you’re in the process of getting an ESA, these resources will help ensure you find an animal that suits your needs and situation:
- Pets for Patriots: Pets for Patriots offers resources about ESAs and helps veterans adopt pets.
- Petfinder: Through Petfinder, you can search for an animal that’s up for adoption and research different animal breeds.
- American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA): The AAHA provides information about animal behavior, training, and care.
- ADA National Network: This site explains the distinction between service and emotional support animals.
How to Get Your Dog or Other ESA Registered As An Emotional Support Animal
Technically, ESAs are not part of an official registry. However, there is a process to receive medical documentation that categorizes your pet as a support animal.
When you request an ESA accommodation from your property manager or employer, you’ll need to prove that the animal’s presence is medically necessary. These steps will guide you through the process of documenting your pet’s ESA status:
- Consult with your treatment provider: Talk openly with your psychiatrist, counselor, or doctor about the possibility of an ESA. Discuss your specific symptoms and how an ESA could improve them.
- Request documentation: Your healthcare provider will write a prescribing letter explaining why you need an ESA. The letter may also specify when your ESA is needed and where it should be allowed.
- Beware of scams: Unfortunately, some people try to take advantage of individuals looking for ESAs. There is no government registration process for an ESA, so don’t pay for a special certificate.
- Consider training: ESAs don’t have any specific training requirements. However, if your pet has behavioral issues, you will need to complete training classes or implement a system of home training to ensure it won’t be disruptive in public places.
Whether you need help finding a healthcare provider or training your ESA to act appropriately around strangers, these resources offer valuable insights:
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): NAMI connects people with mental health conditions with licensed mental health professionals who can help them develop treatment plans, including ESA prescriptions.
- American Kennel Club (AKC): The AKC offers extensive information about basic training for dogs.
- Animal Humane Society: If your ESA needs a little extra training before traveling with you, this site includes a library of pet behavior resources.
Do Emotional Support Animals Need to Have Special Training or Skills?
Animals generally don’t need any special training or skills to be ESAs. Unlike service dogs, which receive very specific task training, ESAs are not responsible for alerting you that a medical event is occurring, guiding you as you walk, or retrieving specific objects. Instead, they simply spend time with you or accompany you as you travel. The only training most ESAs need is in basic skills such as walking on a leash.
Do You Need An Emotional Support Animal Letter?
Because there is no official government or medical certificate for ESAs, a doctor’s prescribing letter is the only documentation you will need. Letters are not always useful or necessary, but they may allow you to receive certain permissions or exceptions for your ESA.
When You’ll Need An Emotional Support Animal Letter
ESA letters are important when you need to prove that there is a legitimate medical need for your animal to be present. Situations that might require you to provide a letter include:
- Requesting a housing accommodation to allow your ESA to live with you
- Asking for an accommodation to bring your ESA to work
- Seeking an accommodation to bring your ESA to college
- Making a request to an airline, business, or government agency with a no-pets policy
It’s important to note that legal requirements to allow ESAs to enter buildings only apply to housing. In other cases, even if you provide a letter to request an exception for your ESA, the business or organization in question is legally permitted to decline.
Steps to Get an Emotional Support Animal Letter
The process to obtain an ESA letter is relatively straightforward, but your request may not always be approved. Carefully following a set of specific steps may increase the odds that you will be given an ESA letter.
Step One: Contact a Care Provider
The first step to receiving an ESA letter lies in your conversation with a healthcare provider. If you are currently under the care of a mental health professional or general care physician who treats your mental health condition, that individual could likely write a letter on your behalf. However, if you’re not currently receiving treatment, you’ll need to connect with a licensed provider, such as a:
- Mental health counselor
- Social worker
- Psychiatric mental health nurse
Letters written by individuals who aren’t licensed care providers aren’t considered acceptable documents for accommodation requests. Some organizations may also require that your letter be signed by a psychiatrist, counselor, or psychologist rather than a primary care physician.
Step Two: Discuss Why You Need an ESA
During your conversation with your healthcare provider, it’s vital that you’re open and honest about why an ESA is necessary for your well-being. Your doctor or counselor may have questions about the specific ways that an animal contributes to your treatment plan.
Step Three: Identify Your ESA
Speak to your care provider about the details of your ESA, including the type of animal and its name, so that those details can be incorporated into your ESA letter. If your doctor feels that the ESA you have described has a positive effect on your mental health, they will write a letter prescribing your pet as part of your treatment plan.
Step Four: Ask for an Official Letter
If your treatment provider agrees that you need an ESA, ask them to write a prescribing letter explaining why it’s a necessity. The letter doesn’t need to specify your mental health condition, but it does need to meet other requirements. To ensure the letter is accepted as legitimate medical documentation, it should be printed on your treatment provider’s official letterhead and include their license number and practice address.
Depending on where you live and how much access you have to mental health treatment providers, you may find it difficult to find a licensed professional to write an ESA letter. These online organizations assist mental health patients who need to obtain an official letter:
- US Service Animals: This organization helps people who need an ESA letter connect to mental health professionals and offers psychiatric service animal training to individuals who want to travel with their ESAs.
- Pettable: Pettable is an organization that is exclusively dedicated to providing people with ESA letters issued by licensed therapists.
- CertaPet: CertaPet allows people with mental health conditions to complete virtual ESA letter assessments and offers resources for individuals who are interested in registering their pets as psychiatric service dogs.
Can Any Animal Be An Emotional Support Animal?
A domesticated animal of any type and age can serve as an ESA. Although many people have dogs, it’s possible for a variety of domesticated animals to become support animals. Mental health patients have been known to use a range of animals, including:
- Mini pigs
Another consideration when choosing an animal as an ESA is its personality and behavior. ESAs should be well-behaved in public spaces and cannot present a danger to others. For example, a dog that gets overly excited and jumps on other people while on a walk generally wouldn’t qualify to serve as an ESA. In addition, keep in mind that certain locations may not be able to accommodate larger animals, and legal requirements for housing accommodations typically apply only to common domesticated animals like dogs, cats, birds, and fish.
Where Can I Take My Emotional Support Animal?
A person who suffers from social anxiety or a similar condition might feel more comfortable traveling or going out in public while an ESA is present. However, laws that apply to psychiatric service dogs often don’t cover ESAs. These are some of the places where you might consider taking your ESA:
- Your workplace: Although some employers might allow ESAs, there is no law requiring organizations to allow their employees to bring support animals to work.
- Airplanes: A 2020 decision by the U.S. Department of Transportation determined that ESAs are not service animals and thus are not automatically allowed on flights free of charge.
- Hotels and homestays: Many hotels allow customers to pay an additional fee to keep pets in their rooms, but they aren’t required to allow ESAs if it goes against their animal policy.
- Stores and restaurants: Retail stores, markets, and restaurants don’t have to allow customers to bring in ESAs, but specific stores may have policies that permit support animals to enter.
Can I Take My Emotional Support Animal to College?
Colleges and universities are required by law to accommodate students who have a documented need for an ESA. Although college dorms generally don’t allow residents to have pets, exceptions are made in the case of a student with an ESA. Keep in mind, however, that the college may have restrictions on the type and size of ESA that you can have. For instance, while they may allow you to keep a dog in your dorm room, they’re less likely to allow you to bring in animals like snakes, goats, or pigs.
Accommodations for ESAs also may not extend to classrooms and other shared areas, such as libraries, labs, and cafeterias. It’s important to reach out to your college’s admissions or accessibility office to determine the school’s specific policies before bringing your ESA to college.
What Can Emotional Support Animals Help With?
ESAs offer many benefits to individuals with mental health disorders. They serve as a source of social support for people who might otherwise feel isolated or alone. They also help people stabilize their emotions during periods of turmoil or stress. These resources provide more information about the benefits of spending time with animals:
- The Power of Pets: This article from the National Institutes of Health gives a detailed description of the ways that animals contribute to improved mental and physical health.
- National Center for PTSD: The National Center for PTSD shares how dogs can improve the emotional wellness of individuals with post-traumatic stress.
- American Heart Association (AHA): The AHA explains the association between pets and reduced stress levels.
- Mental Health Foundation: The Mental Health Foundation outlines the benefits of pet ownership for people with mental health conditions.
- American Psychiatric Association (APA): This article from the APA discusses recent findings about the positive mental health impact of pets.
Important Emotional Support Animal Acts to Know
The laws surrounding emotional support animals are different from those for service animals, and recent changes have caused confusion. Understanding which legal policies apply to ESAs and which don’t is critical to ensure that your rights are protected and that you’re aware of where your ESA will and won’t be allowed.
Americans with Disabilities Act
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990 and was groundbreaking legislation for individuals with disabilities. One important component of the ADA is its rules for service animals. The law requires government agencies, businesses, and non-profit organizations to provide accommodations for people who require the assistance of a service animal.
It’s important to note that the ADA does not include ESAs in the category of service animals. This means that the modifications that are required for individuals with service animals don’t apply to those with ESAs, even if they’re medically documented as part of a patient’s mental health treatment plan. Psychiatric service animals, on the other hand, are covered by the ADA.
Fair Housing Act
The Fair Housing Act is one of the most important pieces of legislation for people who want to keep ESAs in their homes. Unlike some other legislation, this law doesn’t distinguish between service animals and ESAs.
Under the Fair Housing Act, housing providers, including property managers and college dorms, must provide reasonable accommodation to a person who has a documented mental health disability. This law might allow you to live with an ESA even though the property has a no-pets policy, or it might involve waiving a pet fee or deposit that applies to other residents with pets.
Air Carrier Access Act
In the past, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), which is administered by the U.S. Department of Transportation, applied to all animals that provide a documented service for a medical condition. However, in 2022, the rule was changed to allow airlines to classify ESAs as pets rather than as service animals. This change resulted in specific allowances for airlines to respond to ESAs differently than service animals. When ESAs are classified as pets, passengers may have to pay a fee to take the animal onboard or may not be permitted to take the animal into the plane’s cabin.
The department’s shift in policy was largely in response to unmanageable or unsafe behavior by ESAs on flights. Unfortunately, the altered definition of what constitutes a service animal has proved challenging for some people who find it difficult to travel without their ESAs. If you feel that it’s absolutely necessary for your support animal to travel with you, reach out directly to the airline to discuss your concerns or approach your healthcare provider about ways to reclassify your pet as a psychiatric service animal.
Additional Emotional Support Animal Resources
To learn more about support animals, how to adopt a pet, or how to support individuals who need ESAs, check out these resources:
- America’s VetDogs: This organization connects veterans with service dogs and offers opportunities to donate or volunteer.
- Canine Journal: If you’re interested in having a dog as an ESA, Canine Journal has a variety of resources about choosing a breed, caring for a dog, and getting pet insurance.
- K9 of Mine: This article from K9 of Mine identifies specific skills to teach ESAs.
- Betterpet: Betterpet has information about caring for dogs and cats, as well as an article detailing how to train a dog that’s an ESA.