Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) provide very important functions of comfort, companionship, and a sense of safety for people who have mental health or emotional disabilities. Although many ESAs may initially be considered ‘pets,’ once you are formally prescribed an ESA, your animal is no longer considered a pet and is instead an assistive aid that provides relief for a mental health disability.

A person is considered to have a mental health disability if they meet criteria for a mental health disorder. These disorders include illnesses like depression, anxiety, panic, fears or phobias, trauma, sleep difficulties, grief and loss, and even temporary stressors that may cause difficulty with daily functioning.

A qualified healthcare professional, such as a physician, psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor, or social worker can evaluate you and diagnose you with a mental health disorder if you meet criteria and display the symptoms and behaviors that align with the disorder. This diagnosis is necessary in order for a person to be considered to have a mental health disability and to potentially be prescribed an ESA.

How to Qualify for an ESA: The Process

An ESA can be prescribed to a person with a mental health disability since the ESA provides symptom relief. It is the actual presence of the ESA that provides comfort and makes the disorder easier to cope with; however, the support provided by the animal must be directly related to alleviating the person’s disability.

You can be prescribed an ESA by a healthcare professional (e.g., family physician, a psychologist or psychiatrist, a mental health counselor or social worker). The prescribing professional must be licensed in their field in order to recommend an ESA and provide you with a letter or documentation that the ESA will serve to alleviate the symptoms of your disorder. 

Sometimes, your healthcare provider will recommend an ESA for you while other times, people may ask their provider if they can prescribe them an ESA. This situation can occur if a person has a pet that provides emotional support, comfort, and companionship, but the person wishes to live in a setting/community that has a ‘no pet policy’ and/or they wish to take their pet with them during air travel. In this case, you might qualify for an ESA if your healthcare provider agrees to prescribe this type of aid for you.

Some healthcare providers choose not to prescribe ESAs for their patients or clients. This is a professional and/or personal decision, but there are many providers who do prescribe ESAs and will be willing to evaluate you and determine if you qualify. Once you undergo an evaluation, the healthcare professional can provide you with the documentation you need that verifies that your animal is an ESA and your specific need for an ESA.

Interesting Facts

Did you know that the ESA documentation that your healthcare provider writes and signs for you does not need to explicitly state your mental health disability or diagnosis? The letter or documentation that your provider writes simply must request that a reasonable accommodation be made for you due to your mental health disability and that the ESAs presence provides you with an alleviation of the symptoms if your disability. You do not need to disclose to a housing provider or an airline your exact diagnosis, as this is private information.

Did you know that your ESA does not need to have any specialized training? This is one of the differences between an ESA and a service animal (see the next section of this article for more information). The presence of your ESA is what provides comfort, companionship, safety, and overall emotional support; therefore, the animal does not need to be trained to perform a specific action or task.

Service & Therapy Animals versus ESAs

In the State of Illinois, the Illinois Human Rights Law makes it illegal for a person with a physical disability to be denied the ability to buy or rent housing because they have a service dog (e.g., a guide dog, a hearing dog, or other type of support dog). Physical disabilities in this case include the person being blind, hearing impaired, or having other physical impairments.

In addition, Illinois has The Service Animal Access Act and the White Cane Law, which are two criminal laws in the state that protect the rights of people with a disability to be accompanied by a service animal in public settings. Keep in mind, however, that these laws apply only to service animals and not to ESAs.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal law that applies in all states, including Illinois, and protects the rights of disabled people to live with their service animal, even in settings that have a ‘no pet policy,’ and take their service animal with them to public settings, such as restaurants, hospitals, theatres, stores, and government buildings so long as the service animal does not pose a threat to others or cause a significant disruption to others. Again, this law only applies to service animals and not to ESAs.

ESAs are different from service animals because they are not trained to perform a specific task in the way a service animal is trained to do things like help a visually impaired person cross the street or warn a person with seizure disorder of an oncoming seizure. The ADA does not protect the rights of people to have an ESA, but ESAs are protected under the Fair Housing Act. This federal law protects the rights of people to have an ESA in housing communities as a reasonable accommodation provided by the housing provider. The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) is another federal law that protects the rights of people with mental health disabilities to take their ESA with them during air travel (see the section below for more information).

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.