Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) are assistance animals that provide companionship, comfort, and a sense of safety for people with emotional or mental health disabilities. ESAs are not pets and are instead considered assistive aids, as the presence of these animals serves to alleviate one or more mental health symptoms of the person with a disability. You are considered to have a disability if you meet criteria for a mental health diagnosis.

ESAs are typically dogs or cats, but there is no legal restriction as far as what type of animal can be considered an ESA as long as the animal’s emotional support benefits the person’s disability or alleviates any functional impairment imposed by the disability.

How to Qualify for an ESA: The Process

If you have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, you may qualify for an ESA. You can begin the process by asking your healthcare provider if they will prescribe you an ESA. 

Professionals that can prescribe ESAs include healthcare providers that are licensed in their field, such as a primary care physician or family doctor, a psychiatrist or psychologist, or a mental health counselor or social worker. However, keep in mind that not all healthcare providers customarily prescribe ESAs for their patients/clients. The practice of prescribing an ESA depends on the provider’s own discretion and preferences, but you can usually call and inquire about this service or ask your provider during your next appointment.

If you have never been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, but you suspect that you may have symptoms or emotional concerns, you can be evaluated by any one of the above-mentioned healthcare providers. These professionals will administer a mental health evaluation and if you meet criteria for a diagnosis, the provider will formally diagnose you. At this point, the provider can determine if an ESA would benefit your condition.

If you wish to be evaluated specifically because you believe an ESA would be beneficial to your health and quality of life, make sure to inquire in advance regarding whether the healthcare professional provides ESA evaluations.

Following the evaluation, the healthcare provider can write and sign a letter or other type of documentation stating that you have been prescribed an ESA. This documentation can be used if you wish to live with your ESA and you must provide proof that your animal is, indeed, an ESA. This letter/documentation can also be used if you wish to take your ESA with you during air travel.

Interesting Facts

Did you know that under the law, an ESA is considered an animal that lives with you and provides emotional support, allowing you equal opportunity to use and enjoy your home? The Fair Housing Act is a federal law that requires housing communities to allow ESAs to live with disabled residents, even if the community has a ‘no pet policy.’ Under the law, the presence of the ESA allows the disabled person to be able to use and enjoy their home since the ESA provides alleviation of symptoms, comfort, and companionship.

Sometimes, a housing community might allow residents to keep pets, but a specific owner of a unit/apartment/condo within the community, who decides to rent to tenants, may decide that he/she does not want to accept tenants who have pets. In this case, the unit owner/landlord must allow a tenant with an ESA to live in the unit with their animal. As long as the tenant provides the necessary documentation, the landlord cannot deny the tenant his/her legal right to live with an ESA. This mandate is covered under the Fair Housing Act.

Service & Therapy Animals versus ESAs

Service/therapy animals and ESAs have different functions and are protected under different laws. A service animal is trained to complete a specific task or tasks for a person with a physical or mental health disability, such as an animal who assists a visually impaired person when crossing the street. The right of disabled people to have a service animal is protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which is a federal law.

The laws that protect the rights of people with mental health disabilities to have an ESA include the Fair Housing Act and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). ESAs do not require any special training in the manner that service animals require training to perform specific tasks. The task of an ESA is simply to be present for the person with a disability, as this presence provides comfort, support, and companionship for the person, alleviating symptoms of their mental health disorder.

In the State of North Carolina, disabled people can obtain a tag for their service animal that is issued by the state Health and Human Services Department after the animal is registered. This, however, is an option and is not a requirement. If the disabled person does not register their service animal and obtain the designated tag for the animal to wear, they must be able to demonstrate that the animal either has been trained or is in the process of being trained to be a service animal. This proof can be required in instances where, for example, the disabled person takes their service animal to a public setting. However, a public establishment cannot ask a disabled person any private information about their disability or about the service animal. They can only ask if the animal is a service animal and which task or tasks the animal is trained to perform. This only requires a verbal response from the disabled person.

North Carolina also abides by federal laws that protect the rights of disabled people to have ESAs in housing, which includes the Fair Housing Act.

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.