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Can You Bring an Emotional Support Animal to School?

Are you wondering if you can bring your pet to college with you? If you have an emotional support animal, you can! Find out more about colleges and ESA rights.
Expert reviewed by:  
Written by:
Susana Bradford
Published on:  
September 7, 2022
Updated on:  
September 7, 2022

If you're a pet owner getting ready to go to college, you might wonder how you will cope without your furry friend. Can you bring your pet to your dorm room and classes? While there are some pet-friendly colleges, most schools maintain a traditional no-pets policy.

However, not all animals are bound by pet restrictions. Assistance animals receive special legal protections, including exemption from housing-related pet regulations. So if your pet is an assistance animal, you have the right to keep them in your dorm room.

How do you know if your pet is an assistance animal? The US government defines an assistance animal as working, performing tasks, or providing assistance, including emotional support. A dog, cat, or another animal that offers emotional support through its presence is called an emotional support animal (ESA). ESAs and therapy animals have certain protections under federal law.

The Bottom Line

  • What is an emotional support animal?
  • How do you qualify for an emotional support animal?
  • What legal rights does an ESA owner have?
  • How do you prove you have an ESA?
  • How to Get an ESA Letter

What Is an Emotional Support Animal?

An emotional support animal is an animal that provides support and comfort to individuals with depression, anxiety, and other mental and emotional disabilities. Any animal can be an emotional support animal, although most emotional support animals are dogs or cats. Some people have birds, fish, rabbits, and other animals. Unlike service animals, emotional support animals don't have to be trained to perform specific tasks.

Usually, emotional support animals help alleviate symptoms with their presence. While they are not trained to perform tasks, they can be taught to do certain things, however, if they are individually trained, they are considered service animals.

Emotional support animals help alleviate the symptoms of mental and emotional disabilities. For example, an individual with depression may feel comforted by a cuddly cat. An emotional support dog may help a person with generalized anxiety disorder feel safer when they are out in public. 

Emotional support animals can also be called companion animals or therapy animals. They aid mainly with emotional or mental health and a legitimate ESA letter can help guarantee your animal stays with you to help you cope.

If your animal helps you cope with a mental health challenge, it can be considered an emotional support animal. Generally, colleges must allow students to keep their emotional support animals in on-campus housing. Some schools even allow emotional support animals in the classroom. It's essential to make sure your emotional support animal is well-behaved and potty trained, especially if you plan to keep them in your dorm room.  

An ESA letter can help you ensure that you can keep your support animal with you either in your residence or also in classes.

How Do You Qualify for an Emotional Support Animal?

Not every pet is an ESA, and not every person qualifies for an emotional support animal. Under federal laws, you are eligible for an emotional support animal if you have a diagnosed mental or emotional disability regarding emotional or mental health that an ESA would help alleviate. Many emotional and mental illnesses can qualify for an ESA:

  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Anxiety
  • Eating disorders
  • Social anxiety
  • Autism
  • ADHD

This list isn't comprehensive. Many other conditions in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders may qualify for an ESA. 

To learn if you have an eligible condition, you must be evaluated by a licensed mental health professional (LMHP). Nurse practitioners, licensed therapists, and licensed social workers are some examples of people who can diagnose mental illnesses and recommend an emotional support animal. A licensed clinical social worker can sign your legitimate ESA letter for you, similar to a separate licensed professional.

What Legal Rights Does an ESA Owner Have?

The Fair Housing Act (FHA) prohibits housing providers from discriminating against individuals based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex (including gender identity and sexual orientation), familial status, and disability. That means a housing provider must accommodate a person with a disability, including allowing them to keep an assistance animal in their home.

Under the Fair Housing Act, a college must allow you to keep your emotional support dog or cat in your dorm room, even if other pets aren't allowed. The FHA also prohibits housing providers from charging extra pet fees for emotional support animals. If the college or living residence does not accept ESA letters, they must make a reasonable accommodation regarding your support animal.

As long as your support or service animal behaves appropriately, without causing disruption or posing a direct threat to others, the federal Fair Housing Act states that housing providers (even on college campuses or college residencies) cannot discriminate against an individual or their service animal, support animal, or therapy animals.

ESA letters signed by a licensed professional are usually only signed after a healthcare professional diagnoses mental, emotional, or psychological disorders. These letters can aid you anywhere, even in college, by making you qualify for a reasonable accommodation to be made if your ESA is not allowed in an area.

How Do You Prove You Have an Emotional Support Animal?

While some colleges may take you at your word that your animal is an ESA, many schools require you to show proof. A legitimate ESA Letter is the documentation that shows you have an emotional support animal.

An emotional support letter is a proof that you have a recognized assistance animal. It's what you need to show to your college to keep your ESA in your dorm room. An ESA Letter is like a prescription; it shows that a mental health professional recommends an ESA to help alleviate the symptoms of your condition.

College campuses may ask to meet your support animals before the year starts to ensure they are safe and not a threat to other students in the public schools or that your support animal has special training.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act and state or local laws, no college is allowed to discriminate against an individual due to their mental health condition. A support animal offers all the therapeutic benefits needed for an individual to lead an entire college life. A student's education plan can be worked through with a support animal or therapy dog.

How to Get an ESA Letter

You can't write an ESA Letter yourself or print off a generic one from the internet. The document has to come from a licensed mental health professional, such as a therapist or nurse practitioner. It must feature their signature and your need for comfort animals, whether it is due to emotional disorders, mental health disabilities, or psychological disorders.

A legitimate ESA Letter must be based on an in-person or telehealth mental health consultation. An LMHP must evaluate you to verify your mental or emotional disability qualifies you for an ESA. While you could make an appointment with a local provider, it's often difficult because many in-person offices have long waitlists.

It's easier to get an ESA Letter online. There are several internet-based ESA Letter providers. Most of these services connect you with an LMHP via a telehealth appointment for your evaluation. If the therapist determines you are eligible for an ESA, they write you a letter than meets federal and state requirements. 

Sometimes, a licensed professional may not sign an ESA letter if you have an untrained animal or your animal seemingly does not offer any relief from an emotional or mental illness. Being upfront and truthful with your licensed mental health professional and creating a medical treatment plan can mean more reasonable accommodations for your support animals.

Frequently Asked Questions About Emotional Support Animals

Still, have questions about bringing your ESA to school? Check out these expert answers.

Can my college deny my ESA?

In most cases, no. However, housing providers can seek FHA exemptions for dangerous animals, which could cause an undue financial strain. So a college may be able to deny certain ESAs, such as a miniature horse. 

Most colleges are animal-friendly, especially if ESA owners speak with them before the start of the school year. ESA letters can come in handy with support animals, especially if licensed healthcare professionals sign them.

Is an ESA the same as a service animal?

No. A service dog is trained to perform tasks to support an owner with a disability. Emotional support dogs and other ESAs don't need any formal training. The Americans with Disability Act applies to service dogs, not ESAs.

Is a psychiatric service dog an emotional support animal?

No. A psychiatric service dog (PSD) is trained to perform specific tasks to help its owner, such as retrieving medication during a panic attack. A PSD is considered a service animal and has protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act. PSDs assist people and are usually trained by licensed professionals, whereas ESAs relieve loneliness and help their owners with mental or emotional disorders.

Can I take my ESA to class?

It depends on the college. The FHA only requires colleges to allow ESAs in housing, not classrooms. Some pet-friendly colleges enable emotional support animals in class, but others don't. It's best to contact your school directly.

If your ESA has unacceptable behavior during a class, such as disruption, or is not individually trained, you may be asked to leave it at home. Rules vary depending on the class and the college itself.

Can my current pet be an ESA?

Yes. If your current pet improves your well-being and helps you cope with your emotional or mental disability, they qualify as an emotional support animal. You need to get an official ESA Letter to show your college and dorm supervisor or resident director if you choose to live in the dormitories or on campus.

Most public places, including schools and colleges, are animal-friendly, however, ESA laws can vary by state, locality, and even different colleges or universities. A student's individual education plan should not be interrupted by his or her service animal, so if an ESA is disruptive, you may be asked to leave the animal at home or outside of the classroom.

Meet the author:
Susana Bradford

Susana is an avid animal lover and has been around animals her entire life, and has volunteered at several different animal shelters in Southern California. She has a loving family at home that consists of her husband, son, two dogs, and one cat. She enjoys trying new Italian recipes, playing piano, making pottery, and outdoor hiking with her family and dogs in her spare time.