People consider the option of obtaining an Emotional Support Animal (ESA) for the companionship, comfort, and irreplaceable source of love and support that animals provide. If you have (or suspect that you may have) a mental health disorder or emotional concern, you may be eligible for an ESA.

An ESA is considered an assistance animal because the presence of the ESA provides emotional support, as the title ‘ESA’ implies. Many ESAs start off as pets, but if the owner is prescribed an ESA by a licensed healthcare professional, the pet is given the official title of ESA. This means that the animal is no longer a pet and the owner of the animal is protected under federal laws that allow the ESA to live with the owner in housing communities and be present during air travel.

If you live in the Hilltop area and would like to be evaluated for eligibility to have an ESA, we have all the resources you need to get informed including the basic ESA rules according to federal law, the requirements and approval process, as well as the many benefits of having an ESA to improve your emotional health and quality of life.

The Rules for Having an ESA

In order to be approved for and prescribed an ESA, you must have an existing mental health disorder. There are a variety of mental health diagnoses and conditions that can make you eligible for the services of an ESA. These conditions include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Panic attacks
  • Fears or phobias
  • Trauma-related symptoms (e.g., nightmares, recurrent memories)
  • Agoraphobia (i.e., fear of leaving your home or being out in public)
  • Sleep deficits (i.e., insomnia)
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • ADHD
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Memory deficits
  • Grief and loss issues or bereavement
  • Adjustment Disorder (i.e., temporary life stressors that impair functioning)

If you have one or more of these conditions or diagnoses you are considered to have a mental health disability. People with mental health disabilities are eligible to have an ESA and are protected under the law. These laws include the Fair Housing Act , which protects the rights of disabled people to have an ESA in housing communities, even if the community has a ‘no pet policy.’ According to the Fair Housing Act, the landlord or administrators/associations of housing communities (e.g., apartments, condominiums) must make reasonable accommodations for you, as a disabled individual, to have an ESA so that you can use and enjoy your home. You are not required to pay a ‘pet fee’ or ‘pet rent’ because your ESA is not a pet.

Although the landlord or housing community must make reasonable accommodations for you, it is your job to ensure that your ESA does not threaten the health or safety of anyone else. In addition, you must cover any damages caused by your ESA (if applicable) to your home and/or to the community.

Air Travel

The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) is a federal law that protects the rights of disabled people to travel on flights with their ESA in the cabin of the aircraft. Some airlines will require you to complete an application, notify the airline several days before you travel, provide proof of your ESAs vaccinations, and/or limit the types of animals that travel with you. In addition, you will need a letter or other documentation that you have been prescribed an ESA by a licensed healthcare professional.

Dogs and cats are the most common ESAs in air travel, but other types of animals may be acceptable as long as the ESA is not too large or heavy. In addition, just as is the case in housing, your ESA cannot pose a threat to the safety of others or cause a disruption on the aircraft. For best results and a smooth travel experience, contact your aircraft with plenty of time before you plan to travel.

The ESA Approval Process

An ESA must be prescribed to you by a licensed healthcare professional. This includes a psychologist, psychiatrist, licensed mental health counselor, social worker, or your family doctor or primary care physician. You must undergo a mental health evaluation and meet criteria for a mental health diagnosis in order to be prescribed an ESA. In addition, the healthcare professional must identify that an ESA will alleviate one or more symptoms of your mental health disorder, since this is the purpose and function of an ESA.

If you are approved, the healthcare professional can provide you with a letter or other documentation that you can use in the event that you need to show proof to a housing community or airline. Keep in mind that by law, you can only have an ESA in a housing community and in the cabin of an aircraft. An ESA is different from a service animal, which by law, is allowed in other public accommodations.

Benefits of Having an ESA

ESAs perform a critical function of helping people with emotional and mental health problems live healthier and happier lives. They provide an irreplaceable sense of company and assistance, significantly alleviating stress, sadness, fears, and worries. An ESA can make all the difference in the lives of so many individuals with mental health needs.