A person is holding a small kitty is her hands

Emotional Support Animal Guide

9 min read

You might have heard about emotional support animals (or ESAs for short) from the media and wondered: "What is it exactly?" Well, don't ponder over it any further - we will deliberate in detail what an ESA is, in this guide.

Since the dawn of time, people thought that cats and dogs have mystical healing properties. There were a lot of superstitions about it. Dog's saliva was considered to be a magical healing remedy. And a cat could sense evil spirits and bait them out by cuddling down on a sick spot. Now in the age of science, we know that dogs lick wounds primarily to clean them from debris. And while ant saliva might contain a protein that can speed up healing of bacteria, that can cause severe contamination of the wound. We also know that instead of evil spirits, cats sense the most minute variation in temperature and pick a potentially inflamed spot for the rest. 

But in one area of expertise, our four-legged doctors are still recognized by medical professionals. Animals do help psychological well-being. That is how emotional support animals first came to be. When it comes to mental health disorders, keeping a pet can be a great supplement to therapy. Notably, if a licensed mental health practitioner prescribed an animal as a part of a therapy course, this animal is considered to be an ESA.

Getting an ESA as opposed to a pet has some benefits. A landlord can't deny renting an apartment because of your animal, can't ask you to pay a pet fee or a deposit. You also can take your ESA on a plane free of charge. However, you need to have an ESA letter to prove that you are entitled to an emotional support animal. We will go into detail about it later in this article. And now let's talk definitions.

Are an ESA and a service animal the same thing?

Girl in wheelchair with service dog indoors
Service animals have to take specific training to help physically disabled people

No. An emotional support animal is neither a pet nor a service animal. It's in a distinct legal category of its own. It's essential for two reasons:

  • For one, many states have laws against fraudulent service animal claims and representing your animal as a service animal might be considered a crime.
  • For another, notifying concerned people (a landlord or an air cattier employee) that your animal is an ESA and not a pet and is required to be accommodated.

Also, many people mistake ESA for a therapy animal, though, it is not so from a legal standpoint. A term therapy animal is often applied to trained animals that provide help and comfort in hospitals and some other public institutions.

Animals help psychological well-being immensely, regardless of whether it's a hamster or a goose. But don't forget to take care of them in return. ESA status is no excuse for negligence. Some people have lost their ESAs and were evicted from a rented property due to neglecting them.

7 things that an ESA actually is

Charming happy woman of Afro appearance expresses positive emotions during photoshoot with french bulldog puppy, cuddles gently near face, smiles broadly, laughs at camera
ESA is just the pet that gives you the desirable support

Now let's talk about what emotional support is as opposed to what it isn't:

  1. It is an animal that is prescribed by a licensed mental health professional for medical purposes.
  2. It must help with your particular ailment in some way: either by alleviating one or more of the symptoms, by being a part of a therapy course or by improving the quality of life, diminished by the illness.
  3. It does not require any training, certification or registration to be an ESA. Except for mandatory registration of all house animals that might be required by your state.
  4. It is not restricted by breed or species and thus might circumvent some local regulation of house animals, like a dangerous dog breed ban or an exotic animal ban.
  5. ESAs are protected by the Federal Fair Housing Act, federal statute Section 504 and The Air Carrier Access Act.
  6. Denying a lawful request for ESA accommodation without a sufficient reason might be a case of discrimination.
  7. ESA is still an owner's responsibility and an owner is still accountable for any harm and damage an ESA can cause.

There are some other benefits of having an ESA, apart from housing and air travel, as some states also protect the right of ESA's in public establishments. Most colleges and universities allow having ESAs in dorms, and many workplaces are ESA-friendly.

How to rent an apartment when you have an ESA?

Indoor shot of delighted carefree house owner sits on couch and hugs pet, rests in own apartment, being in high spirit
With a registered ESA, you can live together even in the apartments with no pet policy

When renting a house, a landlord can't directly ask you about your disability. If you have your ESA when applying to rent a property, you can be asked whether your animal is a service animal and what function it performs. To which you should answer that it is an assistive animal\ESA and it helps with your condition. A landlord cannot discriminate against you because you own a service animal or an ESA.

If a landlord has "no pets allowed," pet deposit, or pet fee policies, they should waive them for you. They also should allow you to make some other accommodations for yourself or your ESA. However, if you require special accommodations of any sort, you have to provide relevant documentation, for example, an ESA letter.

If your request for ESA accommodation is denied, don't rush to infer discrimination. A landlord might be unaware of the legislation concerning it. Ask about their reasoning, explain your rights, and refer them to a relevant resource like the Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) page on this topic. And only if that doesn't help, make a complaint to HUD or pursue mediation in court.

Please note that there are legitimate reasons to deny your request:

  • If an ESA poses a risk to other tenants;
  • If one of the other tenants has an allergy;
  • If an animal is hard to control or it's not housebroken;
  • If keeping it requires extensive changes to the property like it's the case with big animals;
  • If an insurance company would raise the rate on it due to your ESA;

Also, not all rental property is subject to FHA and Sec.504. Sec. 504 doesn't cover property without any federal funding. FHA also doesn't include:

  • Hotels and hostels;
  • Clubhouses and church dwellings that lease the property to members;
  • Property divided into 4 or fewer parts where the landlord lives himself;
  • Single-family houses rented without advertisement or agent if a landlord doesn't own more than 4 properties of the type.

While college dorms are not subject to FHA, and if a dorm is not federally funded, it is not subject to Sec. 504 most campuses allow ESAs. They usually do it on a case by case basis. And you have to contact student resources or disability resources to find out more or apply for ESA accommodation.

How to take a plane with an ESA

small dog pomaranian spitz in a travel bag on board of plane, selective focus
Emotional support animal has a right to sit on your lap during the flight

Airline Carrier Access Act guarantees equal access for disabled people to commercial air transportation. That includes the accommodation of ESAs, but there are some rules. You have to inform the carrier about your intent to fly with an ESA 48 hours in advance. And you have to provide relevant documentation like an ESA letter. But there are some rules in place, concerning which ESAs can be denied:

  • An ESA can't be too big, it should be able to fit on your lap or under your seat during takeoff and landing;
  • Snakes, reptiles, ferrets, rodents, sugar gliders, and spiders are off-limits, sadly, as there were incidents where smallish boreal animals ran away from owners and budged their way into plains mechanical parts, causing damage;
  • Untamed or aggressive animals, regardless of bread and spices;
  • If an animal is illegal in the country you are flying to, for instance, due to CITES rules.

However, as this topic is currently a legal battle zone, different airlines can have different rules in place. So please check with them in advance.

What to do and what not to do when getting an ESA

A businessman at the computer with his dog
The easiest way to get ESA letter is to use a telemedicine service

You must remember these simple rules so you don't get yourself scammed or get in trouble otherwise:

  • ESAs don't require any certification training or registration! If someone offers you this service, it's at the very list unnecessary and it can be a scam too.
  • Make sure that a specialist diagnosing you or prescribing you an ESA is entitled to do so. In the US, it's generally LPC and M.D. licenses that allow a specialist to diagnose mental disorders and prescribe treatment.
  • Make sure that this specialist is licensed in your state as licenses rarely carry over a state border.
  • Don't try to represent your ESA as a service animal or claim that your pet is an ESA.
  • Don't try to forge medical documentation or use forged documentation you have procured. Get an ESA the proper way!

How do you get an ESA?

A woman talking to the therapist
ESA letters are issued only by the state licensed medical professionals

To get an ESA, you need to have your condition diagnosed by a licensed psychologist, social worker or counselor (LPC) or by a psychiatrist and, in some cases, a general physician (M.D.). The specialist must be licensed in your state. After you can ask that or any other specialist as mentioned above to prescribe you an ESA. Conditions that can warrant emotional support animals are numerous. Here are some of the most common ones: depression, bipolar, anxiety disorder, panic attack disorder, schizophrenic disorders, PTSD, acute stress disorder, age-related cognitive decline, OCD, ADHD, autism, and many others. And don't forget to ask for an ESA letter. This document proves that you:

  • have an unspecified condition that requires an ESA;
  • are in the care of a specialist;
  • were prescribed an ESA as a Treatment.

This document is generally valid for one year since signed by a specialist or an assistant of a specialist. Please don't think of manufacturing one yourself as forgery of medical documentation is considered to be a serious crime.


A man and a cat holding hands

So, is the magic real and animals can heal people? Yes, but not in a magical way. Having a pet is a great benefit overall. It's good for kids when they learn to take responsibility and empathize with all of God's little creatures. It is suitable for the elderly as it is a good company. It's good for middle-aged as animals reduce stress and make a home that little bit cozier. But, if you feel sad and lonely, and if you have a DSM-5 diagnosis, consider getting yourself an ESA instead. An adorable kitten, or trusty dog, a chatty parrot, or even a friendly alligator, will be there to help you out!

by GetESA

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ESA 101: Educational