It’s a well-known fact that medicine has been associated with animals for years. New remedies or methods of therapy are tested on them before tried by people. We take animal tissues and cells to develop drugs. But more and more people are getting to see their pets as a source of emotional support. They help relax, relieve stress or completely avoid it. 

Let's look at some of the benefits of having an Emotional Support Animal (ESA):

  • ESA can accompany you anytime, anywhere. Nobody feels lonely or isolated. If you have an ESA letter that proves your medical condition, you can even keep your ESA with you on a plane or at your apartment.
  • They distract their owners from problems or disorders that exacerbate a person’s mental state. When people spend time with their beloved ones, they have less time left for thinking about past or potential problems or anxiety. 
  • Communicating with your ESA reduces anxiety not only at home but also when you are outside. It increases the level of endorphins in the blood, lowering the stress risk. It is also necessary to mention oxytocin, an anti-stress hormone.

What’s so special about ESA regulations in Virginia?

There’s a common misconception about ESA regulations in Virginia: people mistakenly view emotional support animals as service dogs sometimes. Whilst there are many regulations that are applied to both service animals (SA) and emotional support animals, let’s look at some fundamental differences first. 

In general, the two major differences between an ESA and a SA can be defined by how much training has been undertaken by an animal and by the complexity of the owner’s needs. As so, Virginia Code qualifies service dogs as a dog that performs a very distinctive task, e.g., navigates a blind person. 

As a service dog often assists people with limited physical abilities, it is typically allowed to go where a disabled individual goes. This includes such places as shops, theaters, cinemas, motels, schools, business centers, and other accommodations.

Under the Disability Rights Law, staff should not prevent dogs accompanying people with special needs from entering, as animals are specially trained to complete tasks and act in the interests and for the benefit of the owner. What does it mean? Well, such animals can also retrieve objects lost by the person, prevent falls, accidents, and destructive behavior. 

Animals that provide emotional support only, on the other hand, do not have the same level of protection and are not allowed in public places (except the ones with pet-friendly policy). Law purely sees them as a “reasonable accommodation” for housing and flight situations.

How can one distinguish emotional support animals from service animals?

The most obvious way to distinguish them by their visual appearance. As service animals are typically dogs (with a few rare exceptions), thereby, according to Virginia law, service dogs must be identified by:

  • a harness;
  • an orange leash for hearing-ear dogs;
  • a vest for a general service dog;

Having visual identifiers is important because a disabled individual must not be asked any details about the nature of such disability. According to the US Department of Justice, only two questions can be asked in respect of a service dog owner. And if a service provided by such an animal is not obvious. The staff can ask: “Do you need the services of a dog in connection with disability?” and “What tasks is the dog trained to carry out?”

ESAs are not identified visually: moreover, it’s a violation of law to dress your ESA as a service dog. Just like a service dog owner, an ESA owner must not be asked any disability-related questions. But an ESA owner can be asked for documentation to prove the need for an emotional support animal.

How do I get an ESA letter in Virginia?

If you want your pet to be registered as an ESA, you must have an ESA letter. It can be obtained from a qualified mental health specialist. That letter is a recommendation, issued by a specialist who confirms your need for an ESA. You must make sure that you are dealing with a professional, specializing in animal therapy. In this case, you won’t have to worry about whether your letter is legitimate or not.

An ESA letter can also be received online. But first, a patient needs to undergo an interview with a specialist. During the interview, a doctor asks how an animal can improve a person’s condition and life in general. If a person does have a medical condition that requires treatment with an ESA, then the letter can be granted. The letter must be written on a certified doctor’s form, containing a doctor’s license number, signature, and date. 

“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.

This quote by Anatole France is truer today than ever. We do love our animals! We feel affection for them. And they repay us by comforting us and giving us stress relief. Over time, they become part of our life and make it even more full. 

But to protect our younger “brothers and sister”, you need to keep the documentation in order and monitor the validity of it. And don’t be afraid to stand up for your rights!

Because for some of us, such support is an urgent need that makes our life easier and not a sign of weakness. This is the support that is hard to appreciate by some people. But it’s totally worth it.