An Emotional Support Animal (ESA) is an animal whose presence provides companionship, comfort, and a sense of safety for a person with a mental health disability. A person with a mental health disability is someone who has been diagnosed with a mental health disorder. Examples of such disorders include depression or anxiety disorders; sleep disorders; phobias, trauma, or fears; panic; and even temporary stressors that can cause various symptoms.

How to Qualify for an ESA: The Process

The process of qualifying for an ESA involves, firstly, being diagnosed with a mental health disorder by undergoing an evaluation with a qualified healthcare professional and being prescribed an ESA by this professional. These professionals include a psychologist, psychiatrist, mental health counselor, social worker, or your primary care or family physician.

Keep in mind, however, that your healthcare provider is not required to prescribe you an ESA simply because you have been diagnosed with a mental health problem. Some professionals prescribe ESAs while others do not and this depends entirely on the discretion of the professional. If you know or you suspect that you have a mental health disorder and you wish to be prescribed an ESA, you can contact one of the above-mentioned healthcare providers and ask if they conduct ESA evaluations and/or if they recommend ESAs as a form of assistance for patients/clients in order to alleviate symptoms.

Once you have been evaluated and it has been determined that you qualify for an ESA, you can ask the healthcare provider to write and sign a letter or other documentation that states that you have been prescribed an ESA. This documentation is useful for air travel or if you live in or anticipate that you will be living in a housing community with a ‘no pet policy.’ ESAs are not pets; therefore, a ‘no pet policy’ would be waived.

Interesting Facts

Did you know that since your ESA is not a pet, you are not required to pay pet fees or pet rent during air travel or in housing communities? Since your ESA is an assistive aid and not a pet, these fees do not apply. The purpose of an ESA is to alleviate one or more symptoms experienced by a person with a disability, which means that the presence of the ESA provides a needed service to a disabled person.

Service & Therapy Animals versus ESAs

Service/therapy animals are typically dogs that are trained to perform a specific task or tasks for a person with a physical or mental health disability. This is different from an ESA because ESAs are not trained to perform a task. Instead, the presence of the ESA, and the companionship and comfort that this presence provides, is sufficient to give assistance to people with mental health disabilities. Since an ESA provides emotional support, this type of assistance animal does not serve people who require help with physical tasks, such as a guide dog that assists a blind person.

In the State of Michigan, the same definition of a service animal that is described by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is also used in Michigan law. One difference in Michigan are the various factors that public facilities consider when deciding whether to accommodate a large animal, such as a horse. The Michigan Department of Civil Rights provides a system whereby a disabled person can register their service animal and receive an identification card and patch for the service animal to wear. This is a voluntary process, as the ADA prohibits mandatory registration of service animals. The ADA and the related Michigan law only apply to service animals and not to ESAs, which means that while service animals are allowed in many public settings, ESAs are not.

The Fair Housing Act is a law that protects the rights of people to have an ESA in housing. Michigan does not have its own state law that protects the right of a disabled person to have an ESA, but the state must comply with the Fair Housing Act since it is a federal law.

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.