An Emotional Support Animal (ESA) is an animal that serves the purpose of providing a person with companionship and alleviating emotional distress and/or mental health symptoms. In order for a person to qualify for an ESA, he/she must have been diagnosed with a mental disorder according to the DSM 5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

This is a comprehensive guide on mental health disorders and is recognized by the healthcare community.  Some examples of these disorders and their accompanying symptoms include depression, anxiety, panic, fear/phobias, worrying, loneliness, and insomnia, among others.  The presence and company of an ESA helps the owner to not only feel better overall, but also improves health and quality of life.

ESA Qualification Process

People with mental health disabilities are sometimes prescribed an ESA in order to provide relief of their symptoms.  The emotional support provided by the animal must essentially be directly related to alleviating the person’s mental health disability.  In some cases, a person can request that their healthcare provider prescribe them an ESA. Not all healthcare professionals will make this recommendation, so it’s important to talk to your doctor or therapist and ask whether they prescribe ESAs.

In California, the law requires that landlords allow ESAs (also known as ‘assistance animals’) in housing, irrespective of whether the home or housing community has a ‘no pet’ policy. This is known as ‘reasonable accommodation’ made by the landlord.  If you have an ESA or wish to have one, it’s advisable to inform your landlord. Your landlord might ask you to provide documentation as proof that you have been prescribed an ESA. This documentation/proof must be provided by the healthcare professional that has prescribed you the ESA - in the form of a letter signed by the professional and indicating that you have a disability, which the ESA helps to alleviate.

Important Facts

However, it is important that you understand that the letter and documentation from your healthcare professional to your landlord, does not need to provide details about your mental health disability at all.  This information is your confidential health information and therefore, your landlord does not need to know details about your disorder or your symptoms. You landlord cannot request your medical records either.  It’s sufficient if the wording of the letter states that the healthcare professional treats you and recommends that an ESA would provide you with an alleviation of symptoms of your mental health disability. The word ‘disability’ is a recognised definition for a mental health diagnosis.  This mental disorder or disability, allows you to be prescribed an ESA. People with a mental health problem often don’t consider themselves as being ‘disabled’ because they have an emotional condition. The globally accepted term for a mental health diagnosis, is disability.

Ensure that the physician, psychologist, mental health counselor or social worker is a licensed professional.  A license is required in order to make a recommendation for an ESA and in order to write and sign an ESA letter or other necessary documentation.

Another important point to keep in mind is that your landlord may not require you to pay an extra fee for having an ESA live with you in your home.  This also includes the terms pet fees or ‘pet rent.’ An ESA is considered an assistive aid, not a pet, therefore, the fees that apply to a pet do not apply to an ESA.  However, if your ESA causes any damage to your home or property, the landlord is fully permitted to charge you for the cost of repairs.

Service & Therapy Animals vs ESAs

According to California law, all public places are required to allow service dogs and psychiatric service dogs to enter with their owner; however, this rule does not apply to ESAs. The laws in place that protect service animals include the Unruh Civil Rights Acts, the California Disabled Persons Act (CDPA), and the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).

These laws also apply to psychiatric service dogs, which are dogs that are trained to assist people with mental health disabilities and perform a specific task. For example, a psychiatric service dog can be trained to enter a room before its owner and check for safety so that a person with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) feels safe.  Or it can be trained to prevent/interrupt a person who engages in self-harm from hurting themselves.

A psychiatric service dog is different from an ESA because although both are related to helping people with mental health problems, an ESA does not require specific training to perform a specific task that the patient cannot perform.  Just the presence and company of the ESA is what provides the owner with healing, help, and support. Another difference is that disabled people that own a psychiatric service dog, just like owners of non-psychiatric service dogs, are protected by law to take their service dog to all public places.  ESAs, on the other hand, are not.

In addition to the State laws of California that protect the rights of disabled people to take their service animal to public places, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which is a federal law, also ensures the right of people with disabilities to take their service dog with them to public settings, such as restaurants, hospitals, theatres, stores, and government buildings.

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 in sufficient 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 only 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 vaccinations. Other airlines may have different requirements while some airlines may not require any paperwork aside from a letter from a qualified healthcare 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.