An Emotional Support Animal (ESA) is an assistance animal that provides companionship, comfort, and alleviates the symptoms of people with mental health disabilities. People with mental health disorders are considered disabled under the law. The presence of an ESA has been proven to improve the lives of disabled people, helping these individuals maintain quality of life and enhance social, cognitive, and emotional functioning.

How to Qualify for an ESA: The Process

A licensed healthcare professional is the only provider that can prescribe an ESA. You must undergo a mental health evaluation, which determines whether you have a mental health disability. As the name implies, an ESA provides emotional support; therefore, a requirement is that the person have an emotional problem or significant concern. The function of the ESA is to alleviate one or more symptoms of a mental health disorder.

The licensed healthcare professionals that can prescribe an ESA include a psychologist, counselor or therapist, as well as a social worker, a psychiatrist, or even your family physician or primary care provider. Not all healthcare professionals prescribe ESAs and this is important to keep in mind because your doctor, for instance, is not required to prescribe you with an ESA at your request. If this is the case, you can search for and contact healthcare providers that do conduct ESA evaluations. You must still meet the criteria to qualify, but at least you know that the healthcare provider considers prescribing an ESA as a treatment option.

Once you have been evaluated, if you are approved, the healthcare professional will provide you with a signed letter or other documentation stating that you have been prescribed an ESA to alleviate the functional impairments imposed by your mental health condition. This documentation is what you need to provide to a housing community where you either currently own or rent or wish to own or rent a home, apartment, or condo in the event that the housing community has a ‘no pet policy.’ Since an ESA is not a pet, the housing community/landlord is required to make reasonable accommodations for your disability. Reasonable accommodations includes allowing you to have an ESA as long as you provide the necessary proof and satisfy all legal requirements.

Interesting Facts

Did you know that a housing community/landlord cannot charge a pet fee or ‘pet rent’ if your dog, cat, or other animal is an ESA? This is because an ESA is not a pet; it is considered an assistive aid or assistance animal.

ESAs are typically animals like dogs, cats, and birds, but according to federal law, there are no restrictions placed on the type of animal that can be considered an ESA. As long as the animal does not pose a threat to the health and safety of others, the disabled person’s right to have the ESA is protected.

Service & Therapy Animals versus ESAs

Service/therapy animals are dogs that are specially trained to perform a specific task or function for a person with a physical, sensory, or mental health disability. Some examples include dogs that help to guide a visually impaired person or alert a hearing impaired person, a service dog that warns a person with seizure disorder of an oncoming seizure, or a dog that can alert a person with diabetes of high blood sugar. The right of a disabled person to have a service/therapy animal is protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which is a federal law that allows the disabled person to have their service dog with them in public settings, including housing communities, even if these settings have policies prohibiting the presence of animals.

The right of disabled people to have an ESA is not protected under the ADA; therefore, ESAs are not allowed in public accommodations that prohibit pets or animals. The purpose of an ESA is to provide comfort and support; therefore, an ESA is not considered a service animal. However, the federal Fair Housing Act states that housing providers must provide reasonable accommodations to people with mental health disabilities who have an ESA. This typically applies when the housing community or landlord have a ‘not pet policy.’ A reasonable accommodation includes the disabled person being permitted to live with the ESA and take the ESA with them in the common areas of the housing community. Housing providers can request documentation or proof that the person is prescribed an ESA.

Massachusetts Law

Massachusetts does not have any specific State laws related to ESAs, but the State does comply with the Fair Housing Act, which protects the right of disabled people to have an ESA in housing communities as a reasonable accommodation.

Massachusetts has the Massachusetts Service Animal Law, which clarifies the definition of a service animal as a dog that accompanies a person with a sensory or physical disability. The State also complies with the ADA in regards to the rights of disabled people who have service animals.

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.