Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) provide an important function to people with mental health disabilities. These animals are companions whose presence give the owner a sense of safety, comfort, and alleviates the symptoms of the person’s disorder.

If you have a mental health disorder, you are considered a person with a mental health disability. Such disorders include conditions like depression, anxiety, panic, trauma disorders, phobias or fears, and insomnia, among many others.

How to Qualify for an ESA: The Process

In order to qualify to be prescribed an ESA, you must have a diagnosed mental health disorder. The diagnostic process occurs during an evaluation with a qualified healthcare professional, such as your primary care or family physician, a psychiatrist or psychologist, or a mental health counselor or social worker. These individuals hold a license in their profession and many of them consider prescribing ESAs for their patients/clients if you qualify. The healthcare professional must agree that the presence of an ESA will alleviate the symptoms of your disorder and help with any functional impairment you may have that are caused by your disorder.

If your healthcare provider prescribed you an ESA, you can request for them to provide you with a signed letter or documentation stating your need for an ESA. This will serve as the proof you need if your housing provider or airline require this information.

Interesting Facts

An ESA is considered a reasonable accommodation in housing communities that have a ‘no pet policy’ or that otherwise don’t allow animals. Your housing provider or landlord can only ask you two questions: 1) Whether you have a disability, which is considered a physical or mental impairment, and 2) whether you have a disability-related need for an ESA, which means that your ESA must serve the purpose of alleviating one or more symptoms of your disorder.

The answers to both of these questions must be ‘yes’ in order for a housing provider to exempt you from a ‘no pet policy,’ allow you to live with your ESA, and be accompanied by your ESA in all areas of the housing community. There are a few possible exceptions to this rule. For example, your ESA cannot cause any excess financial and administrative burden and cannot threaten the health and safety of other people.

Service & Therapy Animals versus ESAs

Service/therapy animals and ESAs are often confused with one another, but there are a few significant differences between them. Both are considered assistance animals, but the right of a person with a physical or mental disability to have a service/therapy animals is protected by the Americans with Disabilities Acts (ADA), which is a federal law that permits service animals from accompanying the disabled person to several different public settings. Service animals are also uniquely trained to perform a specific task or tasks, such as helping a visually impaired person cross the street or assisting a person with a physical disability in maintaining their balance as they walk.

In the State of Ohio, the Ohio Revised Code’s dogs laws states that assistance dogs are permitted to accompany people with disabilities into public settings, but the assistance dog must be trained by a nonprofit special agency to help people with physical disabilities (e.g., visual or hearing impairment, mobility issues). This law does not protect people who have psychiatric service animals or animals that help people with other types of disabilities.

Ohio has a provision of the assistance dog’s law in the Administrative Code, which states that people with disabilities can take “animal assistants” into public settings. An animal assistant is considered an animal that assists a person with a disability, such as a dog that assists a hearing impaired person, a guide dog for a visually impaired person, and a monkey that is trained to retrieve objects for a disabled person. The title “animal assistants” is a broader term and likely also includes psychiatric service animals, but not ESAs since an ESA is not trained to perform a specific task.

Although owning an ESA is not protected under the ADA or laws specific to the State of Ohio, the Fair Housing Act does protect the rights of people with emotional disabilities to live with their ESA in housing communities, apartments, condos, etc. as long as the required proof is provided.

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.