Are you wondering what rights you have as the owner of an emotional support animal or psychiatric service dog? Learn more in this comprehensive guide.

Emotional Support Animal (ESA) Laws Guide

September 13, 2021
Alvaro Anspach - CEO
3 min

The Complete Guide to Emotional Support Animal Laws & Psychiatric Service Animal Laws

While an emotional support animal isn’t the same as a service animal, both types of assistance animals have some similar legal protections. This guide covers the relevant laws that protect emotional support animals and their owners. We’ll also talk about psychiatric service animals and their legal protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Federal Laws for ESAs

Whether they’re dogs, cats, birds, or other animals, ESAs are referenced in two federal laws: the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). These two laws relate to an individual’s right to have their emotional support animal with them where they live and when they travel.

The FHA applies to nearly all housing situations and gives ESA owners protection from pet restrictions and fees. The ACAA was changed at the beginning of 2021 to exclude emotional support animals, so it doesn’t have as much power to protect ESA owners as it did in previous years.

The Fair Housing Act

Enacted in 1968, the Fair Housing Act was designed to protect individuals from discrimination when buying or renting a home and engaging in other housing-related activities. This law prohibits landlords and housing providers from discriminating against individuals based on sex, race, color, national origin, religion, familial status, or disability.

How Does the Fair Housing Act Protect Emotional Support Animal Owners?

The FHA says that housing providers and landlords can’t discriminate against an individual based on their disability. This protection applies to ESA owners - by definition, an emotional support animal is an animal that provides assistance to a person with a mental or emotional disability. If you have an emotional support animal and supporting documentation (an ESA Letter written and signed by a licensed mental health professional), then you are protected under the FHA.

One of the provisions of the FHA covers assistance animals. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), an assistance animal is “an animal that works, provides assistance, or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or that provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified effects of a person’s disability.” The HUD also clarifies that “an assistance animal is not a pet.”

This definition clearly includes emotional support animals. This means that the FHA prohibits housing providers from discriminating against individuals with ESAs. In practice, this means that a housing provider must “allow a reasonable accommodation involving an assistance animal” in most situations.

What Are the Rights of ESA Owners Under the Fair Housing Act?

“Reasonable accommodation” gives ESA owners these rights:

  • The right to keep their ESA(s) in their home, even if the housing complex prohibits pets
  • Exemption from a housing complex’s weight or breed restrictions on pets
  • Exemption from pet-related fees, such as additional rent or cleaning deposits

Emotional support animal owners can expect these accommodations in most housing situations, whether they are buying or renting. However, there are some exceptions for certain circumstances.

What Kinds of Housing Situations Are Protected Under the Fair Housing Act?

Most types of housing are covered under the Fair Housing Act. There are only a few exceptions, which are related to the type of housing. According to the HUD, these housing situations are exempt from the FHA:

  • Owner-occupied buildings that have no more than four units
  • Housing operated by religious organizations and private clubs that limit occupancy to members
  • Single-family houses sold or rented by the owner without the use of an agent

The FHA applies to all other housing situations. There are some cases where a landlord or housing provider may be able to make a successful case for denying accommodation to an ESA. These exceptions have to do with property damage or threats to safety.

A housing provider may be able to avoid accommodating an ESA if they can show that doing so would impose an “undue financial and administrative burden.” They could also potentially deny an animal that would directly threaten the health and safety of other tenants and/or would result in significant property damage.

For example, a housing provider may be able to successfully argue that accommodating two ESA goats in a third-floor apartment would cause property damage and/or impose an undue financial burden. If the HUD agrees, the landlord would be allowed to deny accommodation to the ESA goats.

States With Specific ESA Laws

While the Fair Housing Act is a federal law that applies throughout the U.S., there are some states that have additional laws governing ESAs.

  • California: Under state law, ESA owners may bring their animals to work in most situations. Employers with more five or more employees must allow ESAs in the workplace. Assistive animals must be trained to act appropriately in the work environment (e.g. potty-trained) and must not threaten the health or safety of anyone in the workplace.
  • Florida: In 2020, Florida passed a state law that ensures housing protections for ESA owners. The rights align with those guaranteed by the FHA. However, this law criminalized fraudulent ESA requests, so ESA owners should make sure their ESA Letter meets federal and state legitimacy requirements.
  • Texas: The Texas Fair Housing Act is essentially the same as the federal FHA in terms of the rights that it grants to ESA owners. In Texas, landlords and housing providers may only ask for proof of an individual’s disability if it is not apparent. For example, a landlord may ask for an ESA Letter if there are no visible symptoms of an individual’s mental disability and/or if it is not apparent that how the ESA assists with those symptoms. An ESA Letter signed by a licensed mental health professional (LMHP) can act as proof in this type of situation.
  • New York: A housing provider may require an individual to prove that their ESA is vaccinated in accordance with New York state laws. The New York Human Rights Law gives ESA owners rights matching those laid out in the FHA. However, some ESAs may be prohibited in the City of New York based on the New York City Public Health Code. Additionally, landlords cannot charge additional fees for ESAs but may hold the tenant responsible if their ESA causes property damage or excessive wear and tear.

Other states may have ESA-specific laws related to employment or university student housing. As mental and emotional disabilities become more understood and diagnosable, there may be future changes to state laws that give ESA owners more rights to keep their animals with them.

The Air Carrier Access Act

The Air Carrier Access Act prohibits airlines and other air travel providers from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. Air carriers must not discriminate against people with disabilities and must make reasonable accommodations for them.

Originally, this law required airlines to allow individuals with mental or emotional disabilities to keep their ESAs with them in the cabin without paying any extra fees. However, the law was amended in early 2021 to exclude emotional support animals.

How Does the Air Carrier Access Act Protect Emotional Support Animal Owners?

As of January 2021, the ACAA does not provide any specific rights to ESA owners. The 2021 change to the original law allowed airlines to recognize ESAs as pets (rather than service animals), thus allowing air carriers to exclude ESAs from the cabin and to charge additional fees for them to fly (either in the cabin or in the cargo area).

The ACAA does not prohibit air carriers from making accommodations for ESAs. There are a few airlines that decided to keep their ESA programs even after the updates to the ACAA excluding emotional support animals.

Individuals who wish to fly with their ESAs may be able to find an airline that allows them to fly in the cabin, either free or for a fee. On airlines without such a program, individuals may need to fly their ESAs as they would pets: in the cargo hold for whatever additional fee the airline requires.

Are There Any Exceptions to the ACAA?

There aren’t any exceptions to the ACAA that affect ESA owners. However, the law does still require airlines to accommodate individuals with service animals.

The ACAA’s definition of a service animal is “a dog, regardless of breed or type, that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or mental disability.” This definition aligns with that of the Americans with Disabilities Act and includes guide dogs and specially trained psychiatric service dogs.

Psychiatric Service Animals and the Americans with Disabilities Act

Although sometimes confused with emotional support animals, psychiatric service animals are different. These dogs have special training to perform certain tasks, and they have unique rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

What Is the ADA?

The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law in 1990. This legislation was designed to protect people with disabilities from discrimination and to guarantee their civil rights. The ADA covers many different topics and situations, including service animals and their legal rights and protections.

Under the ADA, a service animal is defined as a dog that is trained to perform a task that’s directed related to an individual’s disability. There are no size or breed restrictions on service animals – any dog with the right training can be a service animal.

The government doesn’t require service dogs to be certified or registered in a database. Service dogs aren’t required to wear any identifying items, like a vest or ID tags, though they may if their owner desires.

Additionally, the ADA clearly states that ESAs are not considered service animals because they do not have special training and “providing emotional support or comfort is not a task related to a person’s disability.” So, an ESA that comforts their owner simply by their presence does not count as a service animal. However, a dog that is trained to recognize and react to their owner’s panic attacks would be considered a service animal.

Guide dogs that help blind people are probably the most well-known service animals. However, there are also psychiatric service dogs (PSD), which are trained to assist individuals with some psychiatric disabilities (e.g. PTSD, depression, generalized anxiety disorder). Here are some examples of tasks that psychiatric service dogs can perform:

  • Recognizing an oncoming panic attack and alerting their owner with a specific gesture, such as licking their hand.
  • Searching/checking a room for safety to help an individual with PTSD
  • Responding to destructive behavior, such as depression-related self-harm, by interrupting the action and/or pressing an alert button.

The exact training a PSD receives depends on the disabled individual’s unique needs. The defining point for a psychiatric service animal is that the tasks they are trained to perform are directly related to an individual’s mental or emotional disability.

What Rights Does the ADA Give Psychiatric Service Animal Owners?

The ADA guarantees many important rights for individuals with disabilities and their service animals. For example, service dogs must be accommodated almost everywhere, even in places that don’t allow pets. A PSD must be allowed to accompany their owner in most areas:

  • Public buildings, museums, and government offices
  • Restaurants and shops
  • Hospitals
  • Schools
  • Hotels

In most cases, employers must allow their employees to bring service animals to work. The only time a private business or government entity can deny access to a service animal is if their presence “would fundamentally alter the nature of the goods, services, programs, or activities provided to the public.”

For example, a hospital may not prevent a service dog from being in the waiting room, but it could deny access to any area not open to the public, like an operating room. A business or government organization may ask a person to remove their service animal it is out of control and/or not housebroken. State and local governments may require service animals to be vaccinated.

The ADA also gives housing-related rights to psychiatric service animals. PSDs are allowed in most types of housing, similar to those situations defined in the FHA. However, the ADA also requires that emergency shelters, university housing providers, and public housing programs accommodate service animals, including PSDs.

The ACAA covers travel-related rights for service dogs and their owners. Under the Air Carrier Access Act, airlines must allow service animals, including PSDs, to fly in the cabin for free.

How Do You Qualify for an ESA or PSD?

Now that you understand the legal rights that ESAs and PSDs have, you may be wondering whether your dog, cat, or other animal qualifies as one. In order to qualify for legal protection, your animal must meet certain requirements.

ESA Eligibility Requirements

As stated in the FHA, an emotional support animal counts as an assistance animal. Any type of animal can be an ESA as long as their presence provides comfort and support that helps their owner cope with or reduce symptoms of an emotional or mental disability. ESAs can help with a wide range of conditions:

  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar disorder
  • PTSD
  • Agoraphobia
  • Postpartum depression

This isn’t an exhaustive list. In order to officially declare your pet an ESA, you must be diagnosed with a mental or emotional disability. Additionally, the diagnosing LMHP must recommend an emotional support animal to treat your condition.

The legal document that proves your animal is an ESA is similar to a medical prescription. It’s an ESA Letter. This document must include the name of your diagnosed condition(s) and a recommendation for an ESA. It must be written and signed by a licensed mental health professional who can legally practice in your state. The letter must include the practitioner’s license number.

PSD Eligibility Requirements

Psychiatric service dogs are considered service animals and therefore, they have more legal rights than ESAs. PSDs have housing rights, and they must be accommodated in most public and private buildings, like restaurants, businesses, and schools. To qualify as a psychiatric service animal, an animal must meet these requirements:

  • Be a dog
  • Be trained to perform tasks that benefit an individual with a debilitating mental, sensory, intellectual, or psychiatric disability

PSDs can help with a wide range of mental disorders:

  • PTSD
  • Panic attacks
  • Anxiety
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Social phobia
  • Depression

The exact tasks that a PSD performs will depend on the needs of the individual. Unlike an ESA, a PSD must have special training.

A PSD Letter can serve as proof of your dog’s official status as a service animal. The process to get one is similar to getting an ESA Letter. You must be diagnosed with a qualifying condition that would benefit from the assistance a PSD can provide. An LMHP can write and sign a PSD Letter.

Additionally, you must ensure that your dog has the proper training to be a service animal. This goes beyond training your dog to behave well in public and not go to the bathroom inside. Most PSDs go through exposure training to ensure they don’t react improperly or unsafely to various situations like being around other dogs or experiencing loud noises.

A psychiatric service dog must be trained to provide specific help. This could be a task, such as turning on lights before their owner enters a room. The other type of help is called “work.” This could include sensing an oncoming panic attack and performing a specific action to warn of the impending episode.

PSDs don’t have to be trained by a professional, though they can be. Some individuals train their PSDs themselves whereas others hire expert trainers for their dogs.

How To Get an ESA or PSD Letter

If you have an emotional or mental disability and think your pet may qualify as an ESA or PSD, you need to get an official letter to ensure you get the legal protections you’re entitled to. If you are in treatment for your condition, your current medical provider may be able to write and sign a letter. However, you don’t have to wait for an appointment to open up with a local provider. You can get an official ESA or PSD Letter online through Pettable.

Pettable is an online service that provides ESA Letters or PSD Letters to qualified individuals. To get a letter, you must be diagnosed with a recognized condition and “prescribed” as ESA or PSD. With Pettable, it’s a step-by-step process:

  1. Take the online pre-qualification quiz.
  2. If you pass the pre-screening quiz, choose the type of letter you want.
  3. Pay the fee for your letter.
  4. E-sign the necessary documents and waivers.
  5. Schedule a telehealth appointment with an LMHP. Pettable works with mental health professionals all over the country and connects each client to a provider licensed in their state.
  6. Complete the evaluation with your assigned provider. You’ll discuss your mental and emotional condition and symptoms so the LMHP can diagnose your condition and determine whether you would benefit from an ESA or PSD.
  7. If the LMHP recommends an ESA or PSD, they will write the appropriate letter and provide you with a digital copy, sometimes in as little as 24 hours.

Pettable’s letters are legitimate and comply with state and federal regulations. The company also provides a full satisfaction guarantee. If you don’t pass the evaluation, you get a full refund.

Even if you do qualify for a letter, if the document doesn’t work as intended, you can get 100% of your money back. Additionally, you can get support from Pettable’s expert team members who will talk directly to your landlord to answer any questions or concerns about your letter.

An ESA or PSD can make daily life indescribably better for an individual with a mental or emotional disability. Fortunately, there are federal laws that grant certain rights to these special animals and their owners. The FHA ensures housing protections for ESAs, and the ACAA and ADA allow PSDs to accompany their owners in most places.

If you have an animal who helps you cope with a mental or emotional condition, getting an official letter ensures you have the proof you need to get these legal protections. Pettable makes it fast and easy for qualified individuals to get the documentation they need. Take the pre-evaluation quiz to get started today.

Meet the author:

Alvaro Anspach - CEO