An Emotional Support Animal (ESA) is an animal that provides comfort, companionship, and other forms of emotional support for a person. The ESA lives with the person and provides this support on a regular basis. People who qualify for an ESA are those who struggle with mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, adjustment disorder, substance use disorders, and PTSD among many other emotional problems.

How to Qualify for an ESA: The Process

An ESA must be prescribed to you by a licensed mental health professional. In Florida, this includes the following professionals:

  • A Licensed Psychologist, which is a professional who holds a Ph.D. or a Psy.D.
  • A Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC)
  • A Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
  • A Psychiatrist, which is considered a physician and holds an M.D. and a professional license to practice
  • Any Physician who holds an M.D. or D.O. and a professional license to practice

There is a wide array of professionals who can prescribe an ESA (and provide you the well-known ESA letter), but it’s important to keep in mind that these professionals are not required to recommend an ESA for you or provide you with a letter. It is up to the discretion and the professional opinion of your healthcare provider to decide whether or not you benefit from an ESA. If you visit a healthcare professional for the sole purpose of seeing if you are eligible for an ESA, it might be helpful to ask ahead of time if they provide ESA evaluations, prior to making an appointment. This will save you time and money because some professionals may simply not offer this service.

Notice that one thing that these healthcare professionals have in common is that they are all licensed. An ESA must be prescribed to you by a healthcare professional who holds a license in their field of practice and the letter must be signed by a licensed healthcare professional. Remember that a person can have credentials after their name (e.g., “M.D.” or “Ph.D.”), but this does not mean that they hold a license. Your safest bet is to always ask ahead of time if the healthcare professional conducts ESA evaluations and if you do qualify, ask them (ahead of time) if they will provide you with a letter.

Interesting Facts

Did you know that if you have an ESA prescribed to you for housing purposes by a healthcare professional, you don’t have to pay a pet fee or pet rent? The reason is because an ESA is not a pet. It is considered an assistive aid. Pet fees and pet rents required by your landlord, community management, or building/condo/apartment association only apply to pets, not ESAs. Some landlords may not know this (although they should) so always ask them to refer to the law or refer them to this link that explains the obligations of housing providers. The Fair Housing Act is a federal law that protects the rights of individuals with disabilities to have an ESA in their home.

Service & Therapy Animals versus ESAs

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) considers a service animal to be a dog that is trained to perform at least one specific task for a person who has a physical, mental, psychiatric, sensory, or intellectual disability. In Florida, the law allows for service animals, including psychiatric service dogs, to enter public accommodations. Places like restaurants, museums, hotels, and stores are considered public accommodations

ESAs are not covered under this law, which means that if you own an ESA, there may be certain places where your ESA is not allowed to enter, such as a grocery stores or restaurants. The law does protect the right to having an ESA in housing and this law is covered under the federal Fair Housing Act.

So, why the difference between service animals and ESAs when it comes to where you can take them according to the law? The main reason for this difference is that ESAs are not trained to perform a specific task, such as helping a visually-impaired person cross the street or stop a person with a mental health problem from harming themselves. Service animals, on the other hand, are trained to perform these actions. An ESA provides their owner with a feeling of safety, company, and comfort just with their presence and not because they actually perform a specific act.

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 estrictions 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.