An Emotional Support Animal (ESA) is an animal that alleviates the emotional problems or concerns of the person who owns, handles, and/or lives with the animal. It is the presence of the ESA and the comfort and companionship provided by the animal that serves as a significant form of emotional support and a sense of safety and wellbeing for the person.

How to Qualify for an ESA: The Process

In order to qualify for an ESA, a person must have a diagnosed mental health disorder. A mental health disorder is considered a disability that can adversely affect your ability to carry on various functions of daily life, like working, studying, doing chores, sleeping, traveling, or even using and enjoying your home.

These types of disorders can range from temporary stressors, also known as Adjustment Disorders, to sleep difficulties or insomnia, depression, anxiety, and numerous other emotional concerns. A mental health disorder can only be diagnosed by a qualified healthcare professional, such as a psychologist, psychiatrist, mental health counselor, a clinical social worker, or a physician (e.g., your family doctor or primary care physician). Keep in mind, however, that these professionals can diagnose a mental health condition, but that doesn’t mean that they will prescribe you an ESA. Whether or not your doctor or counselor will prescribe an ESA depends on many factors. For example, some healthcare professionals may simply choose not to prescribe ESAs for personal reasons and this is up to their discretion.

If you have already been diagnosed with a mental health disorder or if you suspect that you might have one and that an ESA would help you, you can call your doctor or counselor ahead of time and ask if they prescribe ESAs to qualified patients. This way you know ahead of time if the healthcare professional will consider an ESA as an option for you and your treatment.

In the State of Texas, you need to be formally prescribed an ESA in order to consider your animal of choice to be an official ‘ESA.’ ESAs are typically dogs or cats, but there are also other animals, such as pigs or birds, that can be considered ESAs. There is really no limitation as far as the type of animal that can be considered an ESA. As long as the animal does not put the health and safety of others at risk, it can be considered an ESA if it lessens the burden of symptoms on the person with a disability.

People usually ask for written proof that they require the companionship of an ESA when a situation arises that you need to show that your animal is, indeed, an ESA and not a ‘regular’ pet (read below to learn more about the difference between an ESA and a pet). This written proof might be requested of you if you live in or want to move into a community with a ‘no pet’ policy or if you happen to rent an apartment, condo, or home where the landlord prohibits tenants to have pets. In some cases, the community you live in might be `pet friendly,’ but your landlord may choose deny tenants who have pets. Other cases where written proof is required includes air travel.

In Texas, ESAs are protected by federal law only in these two scenarios (i.e., housing and air travel). These laws include the Air Carrier Access Act (see more information on this law below) and the Fair Housing Act. There is no state-specific law in Texas that protects the rights of people to have ESAs, but federal law’s pertaining to ESAs do apply. The law states that you must be prescribed the ESA by a qualified healthcare professional and you must be able to provide documentation from the healthcare professional as proof that you have been prescribed the ESA. This requirement of providing written proof applies to both housing and air travel.

Interesting Facts

Let’s say you already own a dog or cat, and you are prescribed an ESA by a qualified healthcare professional. This means that your dog or cat is no longer considered a pet. This is a very important distinction because when an animal provides the service of companionship, comfort, safety, and emotional support, that animal is no longer a pet and is instead considered an assistive aid for a person with a disability. The fact that your ESA is not a pet also means that ‘pet fees’ in housing, rentals, or housing communities also do not apply and must be waived by your landlord or housing provider.

Service & Therapy Animals versus ESAs

ESAs are often confused with service animals and it’s important to understand the difference when you are going through the process of getting an ESA for housing and/or air travel.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the law that protects the rights of disabled people to have a service animal. A service animal is a dog that is specifically trained to perform at least one particular task for a person who has a physical, mental, psychiatric, sensory, or intellectual disability. Service animals are allowed to accompany the disabled person in pretty much all public settings. Places like restaurants, museums, hotels, and stores are considered public accommodations.

ESAs are not covered under the ADA, which means that if you own an ESA, there may be certain places where your ESA is not allowed to enter. The law does protect the right to have an ESA in housing and this law is covered under the federal Fair Housing Act, as well as in air travel (see the section below on ESAs and Air Travel).

The primary difference between service animals and ESAs is that an ESA is not trained to perform a specific task, such as helping a visually-impaired person cross the street or stop a person with a mental health problem from harming themselves. Service animals, on the other hand, are trained to perform these tasks. An ESA provides their owner with a feeling of safety, company, and comfort just with their presence and not because they actually perform a specific act or are trained to perform a specific service.

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.