An Emotional Support Animal (ESA) is an assistance animal that provides companionship, comfort, and a sense of safety and support for a person with a mental health disability. A mental health disability are conditions such as depression or anxiety disorders; Bipolar Disorder; sleep disorders, such as insomnia; developmental disorders, like Autism; grief and loss issues; or even temporary stressors known as adjustment disorders. ESAs do not need special training to help people with these disabilities because it is the presence of the animal alone that provides company, comfort, and an alleviation of symptoms.

How to Qualify for an ESA: The Process

In order to qualify for an ESA, you must be evaluated by a licensed healthcare professional. Typically these evaluations are conducted by a psychologist, a therapist, or a counselor, but sometimes social workers or even your family doctor can evaluate you and determine if an ESA will serve to alleviate the symptoms of your mental health disorder.

If you do meet criteria for a mental health disorder, the healthcare professional will then prescribe you an ESA and provide you with a signed letter or other document stating that their recommendation. Keep in mind, however, that your healthcare provider is not required to prescribe you with an ESA. Some providers regularly prescribe ESAs while others do not. You can ask ahead of time or you can contact healthcare professionals that offer ESA evaluations.

Interesting Facts

Did you know that if you have a mental health disorder you are considered a person with a mental health disability? Many people do not know this fact because the word “disabled” or “disability” is often associated with physical or medical impairments. Mental health disorders and concerns are also considered disabilities, which is a reason why ESAs are protected under the law so that people with mental health disabilities can have equal opportunities. ESAs are only legally permitted in housing and air travel; however, the presence of ESAs in these settings serves a very important function for people with emotional problems.

Service & Therapy Animals versus ESAs

There are several differences between a service/therapy animal and an ESA, beginning with the federal laws that protect people who have these assistance animals. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the federal law that protects people with physical and/or mental health disabilities to have a service/therapy animal. A service/therapy animal is an animal that is trained to perform a specific task for these individuals. These animals are allowed, according to the ADA, in housing communities, in air travel, and in public settings. ESAs, on the other hand, are not trained or do not need to be trained. In fact, in order for an animal to qualify as an ESA, they require no specific training since it is just the animal’s presence that helps the disabled person by alleviating one or more symptoms of their mental heath disorder.

The federal Fair Housing Act is the law that protects the rights of people with mental health disabilities to have an ESA in housing communities that might have ‘no pet’ rules/policies. An ESA, just like a service animal, is not considered a pet. The ADA does not cover disabled people who have ESAs.

The Fair Housing Act also applies to people who have a service animal; however, the ADA also protects the rights of these disabled individuals and covers settings beyond just housing. This means that the ADA protects the rights of disabled people to pretty much take their service/therapy animal with them everywhere while the Fair Housing Act is limited to just housing communities.

Laws in the State of Arizona

According to the Arizona Fair Housing Act (AzFHA) and the federal Fair Housing Act, housing providers must make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities and this includes modifying any existing ‘no pet policies.’

Both ESAs and service animals are considered assistance animals. The AzFHA and the federal Fair Housing Act do not require that assistance animals be trained in order for the disabled person to be eligible for accommodations in housing. However, a service animal must be specifically trained in order to qualify as a service animal and be protected under the ADA. The ADA is the federal law that allows disabled people to take a service animal with them to various public settings.

ESAs and Air Travel

The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) is a Federal law that protects your right to travel with your service animal or ESA in the cabin of an aircraft. Some airlines may have restrictions as to the type of animals that you can travel with, but house pets, such as dogs and cats, are typically acceptable as long as the animal is not too large or heavy to fit in the cabin and does not disrupt other passengers or airline staff.

The airline will typically require you to provide documentation stating that you have been prescribed an ESA. In some circumstances, a letter from the qualified professional (i.e., physician, licensed psychologist or counselor) who prescribed you an ESA will be sufficient documentation. However, some airlines may have a separate form that they require the qualified professional to fill out in addition to documentation from your ESAs veterinarian. Make sure to contact your airline with ample time before your travel date and ask about the requirements they have as far as the type of documentation you need. Some airlines require you to notify them 48-hours before your travel date if you will be traveling with an ESA.

For example, American Airlines has an online form that you can download, print, and take to the qualified professional who has prescribed you an ESA. There is a section for the qualified professional to fill out in addition to an explanation of requirements for traveling onboard with your ESA, and a section for your ESAs veterinarian to fill out regarding the animals’ rabies vaccination. Other airlines may have different requirements while some airlines may not require any paperwork aside from a letter from the qualified professional.

Since airline requirements may vary, it’s important that you plan ahead and contact your airline so you’re prepared with the necessary documents prior to traveling.