Emotional Support Animals (ESAs), also known as assistance animals, are animals that provide comfort, companionship, and alleviation of emotional symptoms for the owner or handler. These animals, which are typically dogs and cats, but can be other types of animals as well, do not receive any special training. Instead, ESAs provide support simply by being present for their owner. The company and support provided by these animals have many healing factors.

How to Qualify for an ESA: The Process

Since research has found that animals can significantly alleviate mental health symptoms, ESAs were given this special designation so that people with mental health disabilities can have their animal with them in housing communities, regardless of pet restrictions, and during air travel. However, in order to qualify for an ESA, a person must, firstly, already have a diagnosis of (or be diagnosed with) a mental health disorder. This includes conditions like depression, anxiety, Bipolar Disorder, panic or phobias, trauma, and sleep disorders, among many others. 

If you already have a mental health diagnosis, you can ask your treating provider to prescribe you an ESA. Many healthcare practitioners will gladly consider this option for you, but some professionals may not. Your doctor or therapist is not required to prescribe you an ESA; therefore, you can contact healthcare professionals who will evaluate you and prescribe an ESA if you qualify. An evaluation is part of the process because this is where your symptoms and emotional concerns are assessed in order to determine if you have a mental health disorder and if an ESA will help alleviate your symptoms.

Once you are prescribed an ESA by a healthcare professional, which can include your family doctor, a psychiatrist or psychologist, or a counselor (e.g., a social worker or mental health counselor), you are typically provided a signed letter from the provider. This letter is often required if you own a home or live in a housing community that has a ‘no pet policy’ or if your landlord does not allow pets in the home, apartment, or condo. You can also use this letter if you wish to travel with your ESA.

Interesting Facts

If you already own a pet and are prescribed an ESA, this means that your pet can now become your ESA. In this case, your animal is no longer considered a pet since ESAs are assistive aids or assistance animals and not pets. The only requirement for a pet to be considered an ESA is if the animal’s presence alleviates one or more mental health symptoms associated with your mental health disability. This means, for example, that if a person who experiences panic attacks and/or anxiety is able to remain calm simply by sitting with and petting their cat, the cat is considered to be alleviating the panic symptoms simply just by being present for the person and providing comfort through this presence.

Assistance Animal Laws in Oregon

The State of Oregon complies with the Fair Housing Act, which is a federal law that protects the rights of disabled people to have an ESA in housing. Housing communities and landlords have the right to prohibit pets, but they must provide reasonable accommodations for disabled people. Having an ESA is considered a reasonable accommodation and this is protected not only under the Fair Housing Act, but also according to Oregon civil rights laws for people with disabilities who meet the necessary legal requirements.

The Fair Housing Council of Oregon provides examples of the various mental health disabilities that constitute a need for an ESA. In addition, the Council asks that the healthcare professional that provides the request for a reasonable accommodation (i.e., prescribing an ESA) should also be the treating provider of the disabled person.

Service & Therapy Animals versus ESAs

The main differences between service/therapy animals and ESAs are: 1) Service/therapy animals are trained to perform a specific task (e.g., assist a visually impaired person while walking) while ESAs are not specifically trained because the presence of the ESA in itself is how they perform their service; 2) There is more flexibility as far as where a disabled person can take a service animals while ESAs are only allowed in housing communities that may not permit pets and in air travel; and 3) Service animals are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Act, and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) while ESAs are only protected under the Fair Housing Act and the ACAA.

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.