Fact checked

How To Make Your Dog An Emotional Support Dog

The laws surrounding emotional support animals can vary, depending on where you live. Read on for a full guide on how to register your dog as a qualified Emotional Support Animal
Expert reviewed by:  
Written by:
Doug Reffue - CEO & Founder of Pettable
Published on:  
February 1, 2023

For many individuals who struggle with emotional and mental health disabilities, there is relief in having an emotional support animal (ESA). These animals provide emotional support for individuals with emotional and mental health issues through their mere presence. Emotional support animals are most commonly cats or dogs. However, any animal can be an emotional support animal. Some of these include:

  • Hamsters
  • Guinea Pigs
  • Snakes
  • Birds

Some emotional support animals can even be exotic animals, such as:

  • Peacocks
  • Lizards
  • Bearded Dragons

For some, getting an emotional support animal can be a long and tiring process. Between looking at shelters and finding the perfect assistance animal, paying for food, board, care, and possibly even adoption fees, the process for pet owners to find the ideal companion can be frustrating. However, this arduous process may not be necessary for dog owners who already have a constant companion. You can make your current furry friend your emotional support animal with a few easy steps.

The Bottom Line:

  • How Does Your Dog Become an Emotional Support Dog? – You must have an emotional support animal letter prescribed by a licensed mental health professional
  • How Do I Know If I Qualify for an Emotional Support Dog? – An ESA must be able to alleviate at least one symptom of your mental or emotional disorder
  • What's the Difference Between an Emotional Support Dog and a Service Dog? – Service dogs must receive specific training, while emotional support dogs provide support and companionship through their mere presence
  • What is a Psychiatric Service Dog? – A PSD is trained to do work or perform tasks that assist with its owner's specific mental health disorder

Ready to Match with a Licensed Mental Health Professional? Take the Quiz Now!

A dog is more than just a furry friend – they’re an integral part of many people's mental health support system. If you have a mental illness, such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or depression, your dog may provide a comforting presence that helps you cope with your symptoms. Emotional support dogs offer more than just physical support for their owners. Assistance animals are capable of assisting individuals who struggle with a mental illness, mental disability, or varying types of mental health issues.

If you rely on your dog for emotional support and comfort, you may be able to certify them as an emotional support animal. ESA status can make it easier for you to keep your dog with you when you travel or move to a new home.

What Is An Emotional Support Dog?

An emotional support dog is more than just a pet – they provide support and comfort to individuals dealing with mental and emotional disabilities. Living with a disabling mental illness can negatively affect major life activities as well as day-to-day activities. An emotional support dog can help. As medical professionals learn more about mental health, they can diagnose and treat previously overlooked conditions. In many cases, an ESA is an essential part of coping with a mental or emotional disability.

ESAs are not the same as service animals because they aren’t trained to perform specific tasks, such as guiding a blind person. An ESA can be just as important to a person as a service animal by offering a supportive and comforting presence. ESAs have certain rights under state and federal laws.

Who Can Get An Emotional Support Dog?

To qualify for an ESA, you must have a psychological condition or mental illness (diagnosed by a licensed professional) for which your animal provides support and comfort.

Some mental illnesses that can benefit from an ESA include anxiety, stress disorder, panic attacks, bipolar disorder, depression, and PTSD. While any animal can qualify to be an ESA, dogs and cats are some of the most common examples.

woman with a dog on balcony

How Do Emotional Support Dogs Help Your Mental Health & Well-Being?

The therapeutic effects dogs can have on humans have been heavily researched, and the impacts they can have on mental health, well-being, and longevity are dramatic. 74% of pet owners report mental health improvements due to interactions with their animals, and studies have shown that service animal companionship can effectively treat mental disorders like PTSD.

The impact pets can have does not just stop at improving people’s mental health and well-being – it turns out dogs can also help you live longer. In a recent study published in the journal Circulation in 2019, researchers reviewed data between 1950 and 2019 to determine the impact of dogs on longevity. They found that people who owned dogs lived longer than those without a dog. Additionally, they found that people at risk of having a heart attack and owning a dog had a 65% reduced mortality risk.

man hugging emotional support dog

What's The Benefit Of Having An Emotional Support Dog?

Getting your dog certified as an emotional support pet comes with several benefits resulting from special permissions and accommodations granted under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These let you:

Live Anywhere With Your Pet

You have the right to bring your pet with you into any home, even if the place where you live has restrictions on pets, breed restrictions, dog weight restrictions, or other policies designed to keep pets out. The reason you are granted this benefit is the federal department in charge of housing wants to make sure people's mental health does not suffer as a result of them not being able to keep their emotional support animals with them.

Many apartment units say things like "no Pitbulls" or no emotional support dogs "over 50 lbs", but you are protected by federal law, and a landlord can't discriminate against emotional support animals, regardless of breed, weight, or size.

Waive Pet Fees

You also have the right to ask for any pet fees to be waived from your apartment or housing units. Landlords and other services will try to charge you for your pets or emotional support animals. Federal law prevents them from doing so if they have been certified as emotional support animals.

Common charges include:

  • Monthly pet fees
  • Pet insurance deposit
  • Pet surcharge

No fees are allowed to be charged by any housing unit as per the fair housing act (the law that governs emotional support dogs, cats, and other animals).

Traveling On Airlines With Your ESA

Previously, ESAs could fly freely on many different airlines, but it is now a case-by-case decision by the airline with most opting not to allow ESAs. We recommend calling your airline in advance to ensure they still accept ESAs. Emotional support dogs and cats used to fly freely on any US airline until a recent change by the Department of Transportation in March 2021.

Airlines still accepting an emotional support dog or cat include:

  • Aeroméxico
  • WestJet
  • Volaris
  • Other international carriers

If you are interested in flying with your dog, you should look into acquiring a Psychiatric Service Dog. These service animals require specialized training and are protected for travel under the Americans with Disabilities Act. You can often train your own pet to become a psychiatric service dog through online psychiatric service dog training programs.

Be More Accepted In Public Places

While ESAs are not federally protected in public settings like restaurants or supermarkets, they are generally more welcome in our experience, given the nature of the support they provide.

In our experience, if you have an emotional support dog or cat, you can keep your certification handy on your phone and show the restaurant host, supermarket attendant, or other professional that is asking you about your emotional support dog or cat.

We've seen that people react extremely favorably to an emotional support dog or cat because the awareness of how they impact health and well-being has continued to grow.

How Does Your Dog Become An Emotional Support Dog?

Most states recognize the need for emotional support animals for those with emotional and mental disabilities. However, state and local government agencies have enacted state-specific laws regarding emotional support animals. While a service animal is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), emotional support animals are only protected under the federal Fair Housing Act.

The applicant must have an emotional support animal letter for housing to make their dog a state-recognized emotional support animal. Pettable offers a risk-free guarantee that we will refund your entire payment with reasonable accommodation if your ESA Letter doesn't work correctly.

Because of this, those within the states will be eligible to receive an emotional support animal letter online by following simple steps.

Take the prequalification quiz

This quiz will change depending on whether you already have a pet that you wish to be recognized as an emotional support dog or if you are looking to get an emotional support animal letter, then adopt an emotional support dog afterward.

Suppose you adopt an emotional support dog after receiving your emotional support animal letter. In that case, you may be asked how many pets you have, the type of emotional support dog you are looking for, and what type of emotional support letter you need.

Get evaluated

After taking the quiz, you will receive a link in your email to schedule a telehealth appointment with Pettable's licensed mental health professionals. One of these professionals will meet with you to assess how an emotional support animal can benefit your mental disability and aid in relieving symptoms of your mental or emotional disabilities.

Receive your letter

A licensed mental health professional can write you a valid ESA letter that can be given to your landlord or housing provider stating your emotional support animal is a requirement due to a medical condition. You can receive your letter within 24 hours of the consultation, with the exclusion of California residents who are getting an ESA letter in California.

Where can an ESA Dog Go?

An ESA letter does not guarantee that you can bring your dog to work or in other public spaces, regardless of what mental issues the dog may help you relieve. State and local laws protect service animals, but it does not force employers to allow emotional support animals into their workspace if that is against their workplace policy.

So, while it never hurts to show your ESA letter to your boss or the manager of an establishment, that doesn't mean that it's a guarantee that they will compromise with you as they are under no obligation from the Americans with Disabilities Act or any other law to do so.

Showing your boss or the Human Resources representative your ESA letter may better aid you in bringing your emotional support animal to work.

woman hugging emotional support dog

A Licensed Mental Health Professional Needs To Evaluate You For A Mental Health Disability

This can sound intimidating, but many people can qualify as various issues fall under mental health disabilities.

This can include stress, anxiety, panic attacks, phobias, depression, bipolar, other mood disorders, eating disorders, personality disorders, PTSD, ADHD, and various other symptoms.

The standard medical professionals will look for to determine whether or not you qualify is that it needs to make your standard of living generally harder as a result (anxiety makes you less present in conversations or more irritable, as an example).

As a result, if you experience any kind of mental or emotional challenge, it's worth considering whether or not you'd benefit from an emotional support pet.

The Mental Health Professional Needs To Determine Your Dog Helps Alleviate Symptoms Of Your Disability

Next, your dog needs to in some way alleviate symptoms of your mental or emotional health disability. This can include helping you get outside, which relaxes you and eases your anxiety or gets you through depressive symptoms by getting you to focus on something else other than your thought patterns.

What's pretty incredible is dogs are literally built to help humans thrive, and the impact they have on mental well-being is remarkable. Talk to any pet owner, and they'll tell you how their emotional support dog or cat has radically improved their life or well-being in some way.

As a result, if you're considering an emotional support animal, it makes sense to think about all of the different ways your animal helps you thrive.

Consult With A Mental Health Professional To Get An ESA Letter Prescription

For a mental health professional to determine whether or not you meet the above two criteria, you need to have a live consultation either via phone, video call, or in person.

This allows the provider to collect information about your mental health history and then make a recommendation that you would benefit from an ESA. Typically in these evaluations, a clinician will try and get context on your emotional or mental disability as well as if your pet acts as a therapy dog or therapy cat.

If you and your animal companion meet these criteria as determined by a licensed therapist, then that same medical professional can write an ESA letter that certifies your dog as an emotional support animal.

How Do I Know If I Qualify For An Emotional Support Dog?

Emotional support animals comfort owners with specific mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders, phobias (i.e., aerophobia, fear of flying), depression, and more. Suppose the applicant has evidence of experiencing mental health issues. In that case, they should be able to qualify for an ESA letter, which is the first step to having a verified emotional support animal. 

Some people find it excruciating to travel on planes, which is why certain airlines allow aerophobic passengers to travel with an emotional support animal that can provide support by reducing anxiety.

Those with mental and emotional disabilities often need a social companion to meet their emotional and mental health needs. 

When living alone and experiencing mental issues, having an ESA gives you a reason to go for walks and runs and spend time outdoors. These are all excellent activities for helping to maintain a positive mental state and are all activities that can be achieved during break periods of a job.

Explaining this to a licensed mental health professional can give them confidence that the ESA will only improve the person's quality of life. Sharing your mental health history with your licensed mental health professional is an excellent way for the caregiver to determine how an ESA can help you juggle a mental disability and major life activities.

However, ensure you are looking into getting an emotional support dog, not a service dog. There are many differences between the two. Support animals have different rules and regulations than service animals, leading to confusion.

woman with emotional support dog

What Laws Protect Emotional Support Dogs?

Housing and travel rights for emotional support animals are based on a set of very specific federal laws.

Fair Housing Act

The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 states that a landlord is not allowed to discriminate against a tenant on the basis of their need for a therapy dog (like an emotional support animal) or a service dog.

In practice, this means that an official ESA letter gives dog owners and cat owners the right to have their emotional support animal live with them in any type of housing, including places that generally prohibit pets. Requesting to live with your emotional support animal is called a request for reasonable accommodation.

The FHA also prohibits landlords from charging a pet fee or pet deposit for emotional support animals, service animals, or psychiatric service dogs.

Let’s say you have an emotional support dog and want to move into an apartment with a “no pets” policy or a restriction against a specific dog breed. As long as you have an official emotional support animal letter, your landlord cannot prevent you from keeping your dog in the apartment.

Emotional support dogs are also not usually subject to weight or breed restrictions. For example, even if the apartment complex only allows dogs under 40 pounds, you can still keep your 60-pound Golden Retriever ESA.

The FHA prevents a landlord from denying your rental application based on your disability or your need for an ESA. Once you have submitted your emotional animal support letter to your landlord, they are not allowed to ask for more details about your condition or request additional documentation.

The Air Carrier Access Act

There are some ESA rights related to travel, but these changed significantly in January 2021. Before then, the U.S. Department of Transportation required air carriers to allow ESAs under the Air Carrier Access Act. The ACAA prohibits air carriers from discriminating against passengers with disabilities and requires them to accommodate disabled passengers’ needs. Up until 2021, that meant that you could bring your ESA with you in the plane’s cabin for no additional fee.

However, the DOT amended the Air Carrier Access Act in January 2021 – the law no longer protects ESAs. Trained service animals are still protected under the ACAA, but emotional support animals are not. While the amended law does not prevent air carriers from allowing ESAs to fly for free in the cabin, it no longer requires them to.

Some domestic and international airlines have chosen to continue allowing ESAs. Other carriers have changed their policies to allow only certain types of ESAs, such as small dogs. Unfortunately, many airlines have discontinued their ESA programs.

Before you fly, it’s essential to check with your airline to see if you can keep your ESA with you. If not, your emotional support animal may be able to fly as a pet, which means they must be in a carrier in the cargo compartment.

What’s the Difference Between An Emotional Support Dog vs Service Dog?

Emotional support animals and service animals are very different from each other. Service animals (also called assistance animals) have different rules and laws protecting them that are vastly different from the laws surrounding support animals.

For example, emotional support dogs are not individually trained. Support dogs help relieve symptoms of emotional or mental disorders with their presence. In contrast, service dogs are trained to do various things, such as fetch medication, turn lights on and off, apply deep-pressure therapy during seizures, etc.

Service dogs are also individually trained to perform tasks, such as alerting people who are hearing impaired, guiding those who are visually impaired, and pulling people who are physically disabled and in wheelchairs.

Another one of the core differences between service dogs and ESAs is that not all emotional support animals are dogs. There is a multitude of different domesticated animals which can be classified as emotional support animals, such as:

  • Cats
  • Rabbits
  • Birds
  • Mini Pigs
  • Mice
  • Ferrets
  • Hedgehogs
  • Rats

These animals are not trained to do specific tasks like emotional support dogs. They are meant to provide comfort for their individuals with their presence.

Meanwhile, service dogs perform tasks and are specially trained to be well-behaved in public while handling their owner's needs if they suffer any panic attacks or have any safety concerns that can lead to them having to deal with undue hardship.

Most assistance animals are dogs trained to mitigate a specific disability. Because of the wide variety of assistance dogs and the specific actions each type of assistance dog must complete, assistance dogs are trained individually to ensure they can achieve their job. 

They also follow very different laws and restrictions, as do their handlers. Emotional support dogs are allowed to live in specific locations that pets wouldn't be allowed to live in due to the therapeutic benefits they provide. Meanwhile, service animals are given fewer restrictions on the type of public locations they can enter. Service animals are allowed in all areas where members of the public are allowed, including offices and workplaces. 

Housing providers are meant to accommodate emotional support animals and individuals with mental illness. Under the ADA, state and local laws must accommodate individuals and their service animals.

Service animals also vary, with the category of psychiatric service dogs.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an ESA letter?

An emotional support animal letter is the official document signed by a licensed mental health professional. It’s similar to a prescription from a medical doctor – it recommends a legal treatment for a specific condition. In this case, the “treatment” is your ESA. This letter is how your dog becomes certified as an emotional support animal.

What Makes an ESA letter Legitimate?

You need to keep in mind a few key criteria to ensure that your emotional support animal letter meets the criteria laid out by federal law.

Licensed Mental Health Professionals

  • You need to speak with a mental health professional licensed in your state to get your pet certified as an emotional support animal.

Live Consultations Over The Phone

That mental health professional needs to evaluate you, typically over a phone call, video call, or in person, and determine you have a mental health disability (mild, moderate, or severe) and that your symptoms benefit from having a pet.

Letters Meet HUD Criteria

If you get approved, you’ll get an ESA letter from your licensed mental health professional, and it must contain all the following criteria:

  • License information from your mental health professional
  • Business & contact info
  • Official letterhead
  • Specifically, note that you have been determined to have a mental health disability that benefits from having an emotional support animal

There are many not entirely reputable websites out there, so it's paramount you work with a compliant service.

How Do I Get An ESA Letter?

We can help you get an emotional support animal at Pettable! Here is what you get with our service:

  • World-Class Mental Health Professionals - are paid per consultation regardless of the outcome, so you are guaranteed legitimate, unbiased healthcare.
  • Legitimacy & Transparency - The only ESA provider offering transparency into their team and founders.
  • Excellent Service - 24/7 customer service and a legal team ready to support you.
  • Can Meet Any Timeline - Our express service can guarantee delivery within 24 hours with the exception of residents of California under law AB 468, keeping your family together in an emergency and helping you get your dog certified as an emotional support animal.

How Do I Know My ESA Letter Will Work?

Pettable is also the only certification service with a 100% satisfaction guarantee. We believe in our service, and we want to make sure that if you get approved for an emotional support dog or cat, it works for your specific needs.

What Is A Psychiatric Service Dog?

To get a psychiatric service dog (PSD), you must have a verified mental illness or psychological condition. This must be verified by a licensed mental health provider and then confirmed that a PSD would help you deal with a condition such as depression, anxiety, phobias, personality disorders, bipolar disorder, ADHD or schizophrenia. 

While any condition for an emotional support dog also qualifies for a PSD, a PSD differs significantly from an emotional support dog. Psychiatric service dogs are trained to do work that allows people with psychiatric disabilities to function in everyday life.

Psychiatric service dogs can be trained by anyone, there is no need to hire a professional dog trainer. If you want to train your own dog as a PSD, you can take Pettable’s online PSD training program. The online video course material is led by a certified PSD trainer, can be completed at your own pace and will assist you in training your own dog. To get started with our PSD training program, complete our 3-minute assessment to see if it is the correct option for you.

Ready to Match with a Licensed Mental Health Professional? Take the Quiz Now!

What do emotional support dogs do?

Emotional support dogs provide companionship to the owner that helps ease a mental health condition, such as anxiety, depression, or phobias.  While service dogs help their owners perform tasks that involve physical elements, an emotional support pet helps its owner cope with any mental illnesses they may live with.

Where can I get an emotional support dog?

If you already own a dog, they can become your emotional support animal once you get that ESA prescription. However, if you’re ESA-approved and still don’t own a dog, you have a few choices. You can find a friend whose dog has had puppies, buy from a puppy farm, or rescue one from a dog shelter. 

It’s best to avoid getting a dog from a puppy farm, as these tend to treat their animals quite poorly. This can sometimes lead to anxiety or even aggression in the puppies. In addition, buying from a puppy farm only gives them money to help keep them in business, and also tends to be much more expensive than caring for one that’s been rescued from a shelter. 

What are the requirements for an emotional support dog?

To have an emotional support dog, you must first be approved by a licensed therapist, certifying that you have a mental health disability that is improved by the presence of your support animal. Your dog does not need to be registered, as there is no official registry. But you will need an ESA letter for them to become an official emotional support dog.

There are no breed or size requirements for an emotional support dog. Your pet must be well behaved around others, under your control at all times, and must not pose any threat to the health and safety of others. Also, though not required, it’s a good idea to get them spayed or neutered to prevent the arrival of an unexpected puppy litter, as well as any aggressive behaviors related to mating. 

How to train an emotional support dog?

An emotional support dog requires no specific training, legally. They do, however, need to be “housebroken,” under your control in public (preferably with a leash), and up to date on their vaccines. 

You can train on your own at home by implementing a routine and rewarding good behavior with treats. Or, if you’re not comfortable doing it yourself, you can hire a professional trainer to train your dog. 

woman with a dog on sofa

Can emotional support dogs fly?

It used to be that an emotional support dog was required to be allowed on any flight with any airline. Recently, however, this has changed. Airlines are no longer required to accommodate emotional support animals – only service animals. 

Some companies have still kept their ESA programs in place. Be sure to check with airlines before choosing your flight to find out if they will accommodate your furry companion. 

Is an emotional support dog a service dog? 

No. Service dogs require specialized training to complete specific tasks that aid the owner with a physical or mental disorder. An emotional support dog requires no special training beyond basic training for general good behavior, and simply offers a comforting presence for the owner.

Can emotional support dogs go anywhere?

While a service dog can generally go anywhere in public, an emotional support dog cannot. Emotional support animals are required by law to be allowed in any residence, regardless of whether that place typically allows pets or not. But only some airlines allow ESAs. Local government agencies cannot require airlines or other places to allow ESAs.

Other public places, such as restaurants and stores, have no obligation to allow your ESA to enter. However, it doesn’t hurt to ask, and some places may accommodate emotional support animals if you simply show your ESA letter. An emotional support dog does not receive the same benefits as a service dog, either. Service dogs can fly with their owners while emotional support pets may not, depending on the airline.

Can a landlord refuse an emotional support dog?

Essentially, an emotional support dog is legally protected in all places of residence. The only circumstances that allow a landlord to refuse an emotional support animal are if accommodations for the ESA would be unreasonable (such as a large dog breed that there is simply no room for in a small apartment), or if the dog poses a threat to the health or safety of others. 

Can any dog be an emotional support dog?

Any size or breed of dog with general good behavior has the potential to become an emotional support dog. Certain breeds have characteristics that can help a person stay calm and experience feelings of stress relief. Some dogs offer comfort and love while other dogs may cause stress with loud barks or excitable behavior.  To make it official, you must receive an ESA letter from a licensed therapist certifying that you have a mental health condition that is improved by the presence of your pet. 

What airlines allow emotional support dogs?

The following airlines still allow emotional support dogs on their flights: 

  • Latam Airlines
  • Volaris
  • WestJet
  • Air France
  • Asiana Air
  • China Airlines
  • KLM
  • Lufthansa
  • Singapore Air
  • Norwegian Air
  • Virgin Australia

Can emotional support dogs go on airplanes?

Since the recent policy changes no longer require airlines to accommodate ESAs, only the airlines listed above have stated that they will accept emotional support animals on their flights. Service dogs, however, are still required to be allowed on any flight with any airline. 

Can emotional support dogs go on cruises?

While a select few cruise lines may allow for pets on board, most will not accommodate any animals – not even ESAs – except service dogs. 

Can hotels refuse emotional support dogs?

As there is no law protecting an ESA’s right to public access, hotels are not required to allow emotional support dogs. However, it may be worth asking the hotel before you book if they will accommodate your support animal. You can have a copy of your valid ESA letter on hand in case they want a copy, but there's no guarantee they'll offer reasonable accommodation for ESAs. Otherwise, seek out a pet-friendly hotel to stay at, instead. 

Can I take my emotional support dog to Walmart?

Only service animals are allowed inside Walmart – no pets or ESAs can enter. 

Can Pitbulls be emotional support dogs?

Yes, Pitbulls can make excellent emotional support dogs. Though some legislation is restrictive of certain breeds deemed aggressive or vicious (and Pitbulls are one of these), this does not take into account that some Pitbulls can be extremely gentle and loyal, depending on their natural temperament and the environment in which they were raised. Nor does it prohibit a Pitbull from becoming an ESA. 

Are Shih Tzus good emotional support dogs? 

Yes! Shih Tzus tend to be affectionate and loyal, making them a wonderful breed for emotional support. 

Can an Australian Shepherd be an emotional support dog?

Yes! Australian Shepherds are obedient, protective, and good-natured, and can make a wonderful companion as an ESA.

Can Animals Besides Dogs Offer Emotional Support?

While dogs have traits that make them excellent support pets, other animals can also be support animals. An ideal companion animal is one that offers comfort and love to its owner without causing extra stress in a person’s life. It’s best to avoid animals that can cause extra stress like a very large animal or an exotic animal. Support animals don't need to be individually trained as long as they are generally well-behaved.

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.