An Emotional Support Animal (ESA) is an animal whose purpose is to provide a sense of safety, companionship, comfort, and alleviate emotional concerns of people with mental health disorders. An ESA is not a pet, but instead it is considered an assistive aid to the person with a mental health disability. People with mental health disorders are considered disabled and it is due to this disability that they are, in certain cases, prescribed an ESA.

How to Qualify for an ESA: The Process

In order to have an ESA, your licensed healthcare provider, such as a physician, psychologist, or mental health counselor, must prescribe the ESA to you if they feel that an ESA would help your disability. Some people may ask their healthcare provider if they are eligible for an ESA. In either scenario, a healthcare professional can provide you with a letter, stating that you have a mental health disability and that an ESA helps to alleviate the symptoms associated with your disorder. This letter can be used to provide proof to a landlord, housing community, or air travel company of your need for an ESA. Keep in mind, however, that your healthcare provider is not required to prescribe you with an ESA. Talk to your doctor or therapist to find out if they make this type of recommendation and if they believe you qualify.

Interesting Facts

Did you know that a landlord, housing community, or air travel company can’t charge you any additional fees for living/traveling with your ESA? Since an ESA is considered an assistive aid, not a pet, you are not required to pay any pet fees or ‘pet rent.’ However, keep in mind that if your ESA damages property in any way, you may be required to pay for repairs. In addition, your ESA cannot create any excessive disruption, damage, or hardship on the housing provider or to the community and you must keep your ESA on a leash if required by your housing provider.

In New York, housing providers are not required to allow people with ESAs to keep any type of animal. The Public Health Code in the State prohibits certain types of animals.

Service & Therapy Animals

There are a few differences between service animals and ESAs even though both categories involve the aid of an animal for a person struggling with a mental health disability. Service animals perform a specific task for a person with an intellectual, physical, emotional, or sensory disability. Tasks such as helping a visually impaired person walk or keep their balance; alerting a hearing impaired person of certain sounds; pulling a wheelchair for a physically disabled person; or interrupting a person before they perform a destructive behavior are some examples of the types of work that service animals or psychiatric service animals are trained to do.

ESAs, on the other hand, are not trained to perform a specific task. Instead, these animals provide their service simply through their presence and company. ESAs provide comfort and support to people with disabilities struggling with emotional or mental health issues. A person with a mental health diagnosis, who is prescribed an ESA, is considered to have a mental health disability; therefore, they are considered disabled.

In New York, service animals are allowed in all public places including restaurants, hotels, stores, buses, and taxicabs. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal law that protects the rights of people with disabilities to have a service animal accompany them in these public places. The New York Civil Rights law also protects the rights of people with disabilities to have their service animal with them in public places.

The rights of a person with an ESA are not covered under the ADA; however, the federal law that does apply to ESAs is the Fair Housing Act. The Fair Housing Act applies to service animals and to ESAs and protects the rights of people with disabilities. This Act prohibits discrimination in housing, whether a person is renting or purchasing a home, based on a person’s disability. Landlords and housing communities must provide reasonable accommodations so that people with disabilities can use and enjoy their home. Having an ESA or a service animal is considered a reasonable accommodation even if the rental or housing community has a no pet policy.

The only thing that your landlord or housing community may request is a letter from a licensed healthcare professional stating that you have been prescribed an ESA. Your healthcare professional can describe why you need the animal, but the letter does not need to reveal any personal information or extensive details about you or your disability.

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.