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How To Get An Emotional Support Animal

We consulted with mental health and legal experts to craft an in depth guide on everything you need to know in order to get an emotional support animal.
Expert reviewed by:  
Written by:
Doug Reffue - CEO & Founder of Pettable
Published on:  
September 7, 2022
Updated on:  
September 7, 2022

We put this post together to help you understand if you can benefit from an emotional support animal. We talk about ESA owners’ rights and responsibilities and explain the steps you need to take to protect those rights. We also take a look at some recent changes in the rules around emotional support animals.

We know you’ll find this info helpful whether you are just starting to learn about emotional support animals topics and issues. This article may also be helpful to someone who's already an emotional support animal owner and just needs to find out if there’s anything new you need to know about keeping your ESA with you.

What Is An Emotional Support Animal?

An emotional support animal, or ESA, is any animal that offers comfort to a person dealing with a diagnosed emotional- or mental-health disability. ESAs are different from service animals – emotional support animals don’t need to provide a specific kind of service to someone in need the way service dogs do. There are several different jobs that service dogs might have.

How Are ESAs Different From Service Animals?

A service dog can act as a guide dog for someone with loss of vision or as a hearing dog for someone with loss of hearing. Some service dogs act as mobility dogs to help people who walk with assistance or have balance issues. Psychiatric service dogs know to take specific actions when their owners need help due to a disability. Because of the wide variety of types of service dogs that exist, including guide dogs, psychiatric service dogs, hearing dogs, or mobility dogs, service dogs need to be individually trained for their jobs. A mental health professional is the best person to determine what type of service dog or assistance animal would be most suitable for a specific person's disability.

An emotional support animal, ESA, only needs basic training to ensure it has good manners to avoid adding stress to a person’s life. All types of assistance animals provide support to their owners, but an emotional support dog provides assistance to someone struggling with mental or emotional disabilities. 

An emotional support animal only needs to provide you with companionship, physical contact, or some other form of comfort that gives you relief from a symptom of your disability. Emotional support animals are an excellent source of love and comfort for any pet owner, but emotional support animals are primarily an asset to someone coping with mental health issues or mental health needs. 

Because of the therapeutic benefits they provide to people with disabilities, ESAs can legally live in places where pets are not usually permitted and go with you into some businesses and public spaces. But along with those rights, owners of an emotional support animal who want legal protection also need to follow specific rules. 

Those of us who live with emotional support animals already know how having these animals improves our lives. It’s worth the time to make sure you can keep yours with you.

What Animals Can Be Emotional Support Animals?

Many kinds of pets can be emotional support animals. Many different kinds of animals are known to offer emotional support to people coping with mental health disabilities. Emotional support dogs and cats are the most common ESAs but people keep other types of animals as ESAs, including miniature horses, pigs, and various kinds of birds. If someone is unsure of the best animal for them, it might be a good idea to speak with a licensed mental health professional to help make this choice. While mental health professionals may not know everything there is to know about animals, they can help guide a person in making a good choice of pet by offering a listening ear.

Still, keep in mind that the Federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) that protects your rights as an ESA owner, also says that your request for an ESA accommodation has to be “reasonable.” Landlords must accept emotional support animals that do not cause a safety concern or health concern to others. But a poorly behaved, destructive, or dangerous animal can give landlords a legitimate reason to say “No!” to your ESA request, even if you have a legitimate ESA letter.

What Are The Benefits of Having An Emotional Support Animal?

Emotional support animals provide lots of benefits to their owners. They give us unconditional love, keep us company and give us something to focus on and take care of outside ourselves. Emotional support dogs and animals also help us cope with daily struggles that can arise as a result of an emotional disability.

Calming Comfort and Total Support

All happy pets provide their human companions with boundless love and appreciation. Even when things are a little sour in our human day-to-day lives, these furry friends are always tuned to our moods, and having them in our lives helps us refocus away from our worries. All pet owners, regardless of the possible presence of a mental health condition, feel a release of feel-good hormones when petting their animal. This feel-good hormone creates a calming, relaxing effect. Emotional support pets can also function as comfort animals because of the ways that they keep their owners calm.

For many of us, having that support is crucial to keeping balanced and productive. That’s why licensed mental health professionals and lawmakers recognize and support ESAs: they provide real help as we deal with emotional and mental health challenges.

Depression, anxiety disorder, and PTSD are just some of the conditions that can be helped by having your ESA with you. 

Reducing Anxiety with Help from an ESA

Anxiety can make every part of life harder to work on. It’s a distracting energy vampire, tiring us out and keeping us from getting important things accomplished. An emotional support animal can help in a big way with anxiety simply because we have something that depends on us. We all need to feel needed, and our pets need us to be there for them. Shopping for, caring for, feeding, and exercising our pets all can help us get out of our own heads and keep moving. Emotional support animals also give us a routine that helps things stay consistent and reliable.

Just being close to, petting, or playing with a pet can let us calm down and reset. They help us keep things in perspective and on track. Everybody in our lives benefits when we can be present and positive, and emotional support animals help us get and stay there.

Adding an ESA Equals Less Loneliness

Loneliness is both a symptom and cause of many disabilities that ESAs can help with. Less loneliness means a fuller and more satisfying life. Besides being with us at home or when we’re out and about, ESAs help to lessen loneliness in other ways. 

Spending time outside is encouraged by mental, physical and spiritual experts because of the health benefits we get from it. And, of course, our pets get the same benefits. Walking the dog or even just sitting on the patio watching the cat roll around is good for us.

Plus, bringing home and living with an ESA can help us meet people. Pet people like talking about their pets, shelters and pet adoption organizations always need volunteers, and friendly dogs always want to meet other friendly dogs when they are out walking. People are nice to each other when their pets get along. A furry friend is a great conversation starter and a great way to talk and meet people at a local dog park.

Anything that makes us feel more connected to other good people can help us to feel better about ourselves and give us the energy we need to deal with life’s big and little challenges.

ESAs Can Help With Physical Fitness

Just because a licensed medical professional recommends an emotional support animal to help someone struggling with a mental or emotional disability, that does not mean an ESA can’t also help with physical fitness. Just being outside is good for us, but getting out and giving our bodies the chance to move and stretch as much as they are able to is even better for our bodies and our minds. And that doesn’t just apply to those of us dogs. A companion animal of any kind has the potential to get you moving about.

Even if most cats don’t happily walk on a leash, they like the change of scenery they get with even a short outing. Plus, if they get used to it young, many cats learn to like walks, whether that’s on a leash or being carried. Just playing catch and chase with cat toys on the floor gives us and them some stretching and exercise.

Of course, about 99.99% of dogs like walking better than anything else besides eating. Training them to be calm and polite in public can also be a workout and makes it more fun to have them with us wherever we are. Win Win!

And it goes beyond getting exercise with our furry buddies. Even as many of us keep working from home or don’t get out much for other reasons, we can use a trip to the pet store as a chance to get out of the car and walk around a little before your order is brought out. Any exercise we give our bodies also helps us stay healthier in our minds and emotions.

Sleep Like a Cat or Dog 

Most pets are very good at resting, and we can learn from them. Besides being good role models, however, ESAs are also great at helping us get to sleep. Whether it is that bedtime walk, listening to a purr instead of a noise machine, or having your dog act as a weighted blanket, ESAs help many owners get the rest we all need to handle life’s challenges.

ESAs as Natural Medicine

Prescription medicines aimed at improving emotional and mental health all have side effects and some are severe, including risk of addiction. Meanwhile, a lot of those medicines either act like or help us produce or process chemicals we actually make in our own bodies, including hormones that make us feel safe and happy.

Interacting with an ESA, like other pleasant experiences and natural medicines, can help our bodies do a better job of making or regulating those substances. When that happens, we can stay physically balanced while relying less on powerful drugs.

The symptoms of many emotional and mental disabilities overwork our bodies in other ways, too, whether that’s by increasing blood pressure in reaction to stress, lowering resistance to diseases, or even causing damage to various organs. When we get sick, those things make it harder to get well. Having our emotional support animal nearby is the best stress reducer and blood pressure controller many of us have found. That helps us get back on our feet more quickly and back to being productive.

How Do I Qualify For An Emotional Support Animal?

The reason a person may need an emotional support dog is a little different than the reasons a person might need a service dog or psychiatric service dog. Anyone who wants to legally keep our emotional support animal with us at home and in public places to help with mental or emotional health symptoms needs to qualify for an ESA letter that we can show landlords and others. So how can we make sure we qualify for a support animal?

You Need To Have A Mental Health Challenge or Disability

While a psychiatric service dog and emotional support dog both give their owners the ability to cope with a mental disability or emotional struggle, they're a little different. Not everyone who needs an emotional support dog or pet will also need a psychiatric service dog. Psychiatric service dogs are individually trained to help people with specific tasks. Emotional support animals are not.

It's best to seek out guidance from a licensed medical doctor on which animal can best support you. Either way, you’ll need to work with a qualified professional if they want to live with and go places with a legally protected emotional support animal. That professional will help you understand whether you have a qualifying mental or emotional health. Those conditions include:

  • ADHD
  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Depression
  • Loneliness
  • Personality Disorder
  • Phobias
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Schizophrenia
  • Other mental and emotional health conditions

Your Animal Needs To Help With Your Mental Health Challenge or Disability

There isn’t a similar list of how emotional support animals help us, so you need to be able to tell a professional how your ESA helps you cope with mental health challenges. That gives them the information they need to understand what you’re dealing with and lets them prescribe an ESA letter to back you up. That letter will tell other people and businesses that your ESA is with you legally because they support you to deal with symptoms of your disability. 

And don’t worry, that conversation is protected. Only the professional you talk to will know the details of what you are dealing with and you don’t need to prove, or even explain, to anyone else how your pet helps you. No one else is allowed to even ask you to share that information

Many People Benefit From An ESA, and More People Can Qualify Than You Think

Talking to a professional can help you understand whether you can be helped by having an ESA. While relatively few of us deal with the most severe forms of emotional and mental health disorders, researchers say about half of Americans have or will develop some form of mental or emotional disorder at some point in their life. For some of us, those conditions are severe and long-lasting. Luckily, for many of us, our struggles are more temporary and don’t happen all the time.

Either way, unfortunately, many of us are never formally diagnosed by a professional so we can take steps to help ourselves. They are still very real to us and for many more other people than you might think. It is worth it to find out if you are one of the people who can be helped by an ESA and how to protect your rights if you need that help by speaking to a licensed mental health professional.

Woman and her ESA dog

How Do I Certify My Emotional Support Animal is Allowed to be With Me?

An ESA letter is a legal document that says a qualified professional agrees that you can benefit from and should be allowed to have an emotional support animal living with and going places with you. 

A few different medical professionals are authorized to sign an ESA letter, but only if they are licensed to provide services in your state. Some of them are: 

  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker
  • Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
  • Family Doctor With Experience In Mental Health
  • Licensed Professional Counselors
  • Licensed Professional Mental Health Counselors
  • Licensed Clinical Psychologists

Emotional support animal laws have changed in the last few years, and may change again in the future. Various federal, state and local laws and regulations explain and protect our right to have an emotional support animal, but they only help if you have a valid ESA letter. Also, those laws and how the government says businesses have to follow them can change. While our rights to have an ESA live with us and go into many public places are solidly protected, for example, travel rules have changed during the last couple of years and are tougher than before.

You should always check with an airline or other transportation provider to see if anything has changed before you buy a ticket to use their service. If their rules seem like they might violate the law, you can check with an expert, including experts working with services like Pettable that help you get a legally sound ESA.

Legitimate ESA services have to follow specific steps to make sure the ESA letter they provide follows all applicable laws at the time you get it and will protect your rights. That process includes:

  • Connecting you with a professional who is legally qualified to certify you are entitled to an ESA
  • Ensuring that you have a one-on-one in-person, phone, or video conversation with that qualified provider
  • Making sure the professionals they connect you are experts and will include all necessary information (and only necessary info) in your ESA letter
  • Delivering the ESA letter to you in a timely manner
  • Providing support if you run into any difficulty exercising the rights that your ESA helps you protect

How Quickly Can I Qualify and Get an ESA Letter? 

Working with Pettable to qualify and get a legitimate ESA letter is really quick and really easy. The first step is to go to Pettable.com and complete a 3-minute assessment. This will help you decide if you are likely to qualify for an ESA letter and give you more insight into how Pettable works with you to make that happen.

The quiz will help you understand how the ESA Letter you get through Pettable complies with the U.S. Federal Fair Housing Act to protect your rights. You’ll also get up-to-date information about any changes in how different airlines work with ESA travelers.

You tell Pettable how quickly you need the letter. If you are in the process of renting a new place or letting a landlord know that you qualify to keep your pet with you, Pettable can deliver a legitimate, legally valid ESA letter in just 24 hours, with the exception of residents in California where law AB 468 applies, requiring a client-provider relationship of at least 30 days prior to providing documentation resulting in having two consultations before qualifying.

Then you’ll let Pettable know what state you live in, so that they can guarantee that the professional you connect with is licensed and qualified to offer services in your state. This is an absolute requirement for your ESA letter to be legitimate. Also, if you spend a lot of time in more than one state, Pettable can help you get qualifying letters for multiple states.

Once you decide that you are ready to get your ESA letter, you’ll pay Pettable’s affordable fee, fill out a few required medical privacy forms, and get scheduled for a one-on-one interview with a qualified professional. You’ll talk with them about the challenges you are dealing with and how your pet helps you cope and live a fuller life. Once they have that information, they’ll create a personalized ESA letter that contains all the information required by law and explains your legal rights to anyone who requests documentation to let you live with or enter public spaces with your ESA.

That isn’t the end of what you get with a Pettable-facilitated ESA letter. If you ever encounter someone who pushes back on your reasonable request, Pettable’s licensed mental health professional partners are available to get on the phone and help you resolve any issues.

And remember, if your ESA letter doesn’t work to protect your rights, Pettable will refund 100% of your payment. 

ESA on owners lap


FAQs

Are Emotional Support Animal certification and ESA registration the same?

They ARE the same but only because they aren’t real things. The professionals you work with through Pettable certify that YOU qualify for protection under the law. If you qualify, and your pet is a reasonable companion where you want to live or go on an outing, and you have an ESA letter, any pet can be your ESA, no special papers are required for them.

There is no legally binding process to certify any animal as an ESA.

Is there an ESA registry?

No. Any service claiming to provide ESA certification or registration for your pet is almost certainly scamming you.

Can my emotional support animal fly with me on a commercial airline?

Since the beginning of 2021, that depends on each airline’s rules. That’s when the U.S. Department of Transportation said that airlines no longer have to let emotional support dogs or animals fly with their owners in the cabin. While properly trained and documented SERVICE animals can still fly for free on almost every airline, only a few airlines operating in the U.S. still allow ESAs for free and some will only allow them to travel in the cargo hold with the luggage.

Since even ESA-friendly airlines might change rules and requirements before your next trip, make sure you contact them for the latest information well before you fly.

What’s the Difference Between ESAs and Service Animals?

The biggest difference is that emotional service animals aren’t required to have any special training. If they help us deal with a recognized condition or symptom, they are considered ESAs and we have the right to keep them at home and take them into some public places. The standards for Service animals is much higher because they must be trained to perform specific services for the people they accompany and to be safe around other people and animals. That’s why they are allowed in many more places and situations than ESAs.

The Fair Housing Act gives service animal owners the same rights as people who qualify to keep ESAs in rental properties. But service animal owners have more rights under other federal laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) that let them bring service animals with them onto airlines and into restaurants and other private businesses.

Where is my emotional support animal allowed to go with me?

The Federal Fair Housing Act gives qualified renters the legal right to have ESAs living with them, even in residences that don’t allow pets or have limits about sizes or the number or kind of animal you can have. Many private businesses, restaurants, and retailers are also happy to accommodate well-behaved ESAs, but they aren’t legally required to do that, whether you have an ESA letter or not.

Can hotels prohibit or charge extra for my ESA?

Current U.S. law only prohibits landlords from refusing to rent to qualified people who need an ESA living with them. Unfortunately, that doesn’t include hotels or vacation rentals. They can say no to any pet that isn’t a trained service animal, including ESAs, or charge a pet fee on top of what other guests pay to stay there. But there are pet-friendly accommodations available nearly anywhere you might travel, so check with the hotel or property owner/manager for any special requirements and fees.

Can I have more than one ESA?

Yes, as long as you have documentation for each one. Pettable can help you get an ESA letter covering more than one animal.

Meet the author:
Doug Reffue - CEO & Founder of Pettable

Growing up in upstate New York with a dog named Boo and a cat named Ziti, Doug has been a lifelong animal lover. He currently lives in Massachusetts with his wife, two children and his dog Layla.  

Doug was an early employee at Embark Veterinary where he led the sales and marketing efforts for the world’s premier Dog DNA test. He has held executive positions at a variety of companies within several industries including professional sports, skincare and home fragrance.