Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) are animals that are owned and kept by people with mental health disabilities. These animals provide comfort, companionship, a sense of safety, and, as the name implies, support for the alleviation of mental health symptoms. ESAs are considered assistance animals and provide their service simply through their presence. They do not require any special training, but by living with and accompanying the disabled person in the home environment, ESAs provide a very important function.

How to Qualify for an ESA: The Process

Qualifying for an ESA involves two primary requirements: 1) You must have a mental health disability and 2) The ESAs presence must alleviate one or more symptoms of your mental health disorder/disability. Mental health disorders/disabilities include the presence of conditions such as depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, panic, fears, phobias, trauma, memory problems, grief and loss issues, or even temporary stressors that cause impairments in functioning.

A licensed healthcare professional, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist, a counselor or therapist, a social worker, or even your family physician can prescribe you an ESA if the provider believes that the ESA will benefit your emotional condition and alleviate your symptoms. These professionals are not required to prescribe you with an ESA, so you will have to ask your doctor or therapist if they will make this recommendation for you. If they decide not to, you still have the option to contact a healthcare professional who does prescribe ESAs in order to be evaluated. You must undergo a formal evaluation so that the healthcare professional can assess your symptoms and determine if you have a condition that warrants the service of an ESA.

Once you are approved, the healthcare professional will provide you with a signed letter or other documentation. This letter can serve as proof that you have been prescribed an ESA.

Interesting Facts

Did you know that the laws that protect your right to have an ESA include the Fair Housing Act and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA)? This means that ESAs are only allowed in housing communities that may have ‘no pet policies’ and during air travel. ESAs are not allowed in public settings that have a ‘no pets’ restriction, such as grocery stores, restaurants, retail stores, and movie theatres. However, when it comes to housing communities, condos, or apartments, your right to have an ESA is protected under the law and this includes having your ESA accompany you in common areas within your housing community, building, or similar setting.

Service & Therapy Animals versus ESAs

A service/therapy animal is an animal that is specifically trained to provide a service to a person with a physical or mental disability. The animal can be trained by the disabled person or by a professional service, but the service animal is able to perform a function such as helping a person with a physical disability walk or warning a person who has seizures of an oncoming episode. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the federal law that protects the rights of disabled people to have a service/therapy animal in public accommodations.

ESAs, on the other hand, are not trained to perform a specific task and are therefore not considered a service animal. The presence and company of the ESA is the ‘service’ since the purpose of the animal's presence is to alleviate one or more mental health symptoms of the disabled person.

Both service/therapy animals and ESAs assist people with disabilities, but the main differences are that service/therapy animals help people with physical disabilities as well as mental health disabilities while ESAs only serve people with mental health disabilities. In addition, service/therapy animals are allowed in a variety of public settings while ESAs are only permitted in housing communities and during air travel. The Fair Housing Act is the federal law that protects the rights of disabled people to live with an ESA, even if the community has a ‘no pet policy.’ An ESA, just like a service/therapy animal, is not a pet. These animals are considered assistance animals for people with disabilities.

The State of Colorado abides by the ADA and the Fair Housing Act. In addition, Colorado has implemented penalties and fines for people who misrepresent a pet for a service animal or an assistance animal (including an ESA). State law specifies that in order to have an ESA in housing, you must have the necessary documentation. Housing providers can ask you to provide this documentation as proof that you have been prescribed the ESA by a healthcare professional.

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.