Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) are assistance animals that provide a sense of safety, companionship, comfort, and support for people with mental health disorders. If you have a mental health disorder, you are considered a person with a disability, which means that you may qualify for an ESA.

How to Qualify for an ESA: The Process

In order to qualify, a licensed healthcare professional must prescribe you the ESA. The ESA must alleviate at least one of your mental health symptoms, which means that the presence of your ESA must serve to help ease your symptom(s).

You must also have a diagnosed mental health disorder in order to qualify for an ESA. You can be evaluated and diagnosed by a healthcare provider, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist, your family physician, a social worker, or a therapist or counselor. These individuals must be licensed in their profession and must evaluate you to determine if you qualify.

If you do qualify for an ESA, your treating provider can write and sign a letter explaining your need for the ESA. You can use this letter if you wish to have your ESA in settings where pets are not permitted. This includes certain housing communities or during air travel. Your ESA is not considered a pet, which is the reason why the animal is allowed in these settings.

Interesting Facts

Did you know that you must have a mental health disorder in order to be prescribed an ESA? The reason for this is because ESAs are designated for people with mental health disabilities and having a mental health disability means that you must meet criteria for a condition such as depression, anxiety, Bipolar Disorder, panic, phobias or fears, trauma, intellectual problems, sleep issues, grief and loss, or even temporary stressors that can cause significant symptoms. The role of the ESA is to alleviate one or more symptoms of your mental health disorder, hence the name “emotional support” animal.

Service & Therapy Animals versus ESAs

Service and therapy animals are animals that go through extensive training in order to perform a task or function for a person with a physical or mental health disability. These are the animals that you often see wearing a vest or a badge, although by law, it is not required that the service animal wear any type of identifying clothing or garments. Owners of service animals often dress the dog in a vest or use a badge in order to identify the animal when they take them to public places. Service/therapy animals are considered assistance animals just like ESAs except service/therapy animals are allowed to enter practically any public accommodation (e.g., restaurants, retail stores, theatres, grocery stores), as well as housing communities that do not allow pets and on air travel. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Fair Housing Act, and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) protect the rights of disabled people to have service/therapy animals.

ESAs are protected under the Fair Housing Act and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), but not the ADA. This means that ESAs cannot enter any public accommodation, but the Fair Housing Act requires that housing communities/landlords make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities to have an ESA in housing communities as long as the disabled person fulfills the necessary legal requirements.

In the State of Washington, there are laws that have limited the definition of a service animal and have inflicted fines and other consequences if people misrepresent a pet as a service animal. The purpose of these actions is to protect the rights of disabled people to benefit from assistance animals.

According to Washington State Law, ESAs are protected under reasonable accommodations for housing and air travel. Washington also abides by the federal Fair Housing Act, which also protects the rights of people with mental health disabilities to have their ESA live with them, even if the housing community and/or landlord has a ‘no pet policy.’ Although ESAs are not allowed in public settings that have no pet policies (e.g., restaurants, grocery stores), an ESA in a housing community is allowed to accompany the disabled person anywhere on the premises (e.g., community club houses). The law mandates this right for disabled people who have an ESA so that they can use and enjoy their home.

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.