What Is an Emotional Support Animal?
Emotional support animals (ESAs) are those that, as the name suggests, provide support or comfort to their owners.
ESAs generally assist people with mental health conditions. For example, it’s common for someone to have an emotional support animal for anxiety or an emotional support animal for depression.
However, these animals may also benefit those with other conditions, such as bipolar disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), or Attention-Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD).
How to Qualify for an Emotional Support Animal in Virginia
In Virginia, there are no specific rules regarding ESA dog breeds or the types of animals that can be classified as ESAs. However, it’s important to note that Virginia state officials (as well as federal officials) see ESAs differently than trained service dogs and psychiatric service dogs (PSDs).
You must understand these differences so that you don’t accidentally violate laws and get hit with potential fines or other penalties.
ESA vs. Service Animals
Not sure what the differences are between an ESA vs. service animal or ESA vs. PSD? Here are some essential distinctions to keep in mind:
- The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) only protects service dogs
- Any animal can technically be considered an ESA, although most people with ESAs have either a dog or a cat
- To qualify as a service dog, a dog must have received specific training and be able to perform a particular task that benefits its owner (for example, the dog positions itself under the owner’s head for protection when they’re having a seizure)
- ESAs do not require specific training; they just have to provide comfort or support to their owner.
Because ESAs are different from service dogs, they have other rights and protections.
For example, a restaurant owner must legally allow someone with a service dog to bring the dog inside (otherwise, they could be accused of discrimination and met with a lawsuit). They don’t have to do the same for someone who has an emotional support animal.
Benefits of Having an Emotional Support Animal
Even though emotional support animals aren’t allowed in as many places as service dogs, they still provide valuable assistance to many people. The following are some of the most popular reasons why people choose to have ESAs:
- ESAs help owners stick to a routine and experience a sense of purpose (both of which can be beneficial to those struggling with anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges)
- Time with animals is linked to reduced feelings of anxiety and depression
- Caring for an ESA can provide temporary symptom distraction and minimize fixations of a particular issue
- ESAs for veterans can provide comfort during panic attacks; they may also help to minimize stress and anxiety or combat feelings of loneliness.
Many people with ESAs also find that their pets naturally become attuned to their needs. Pets can often detect when their owners are feeling stressed, anxious, sad, etc., and can provide a comforting touch or companionship during these periods.
How to Get an ESA Letter
In many places, including Virginia, an ESA letter is required if you want to live in an apartment with your pet, travel with them on an airplane, or bring them with you into certain public spaces.
Getting an ESA letter is relatively simple, but there are some essential steps you must take to ensure you’re getting a legitimate document.
Organizations like Pettable make it easy for pet owners to get valid ESA letters online in just a few steps:
- Assessment: Answer a few questions online to determine if an ESA letter is appropriate for you; if it is, you will pay a fee and fill out some basic forms
- Therapist consultation: After submitting your fee and forms, you’ll book a consultation with a therapist who will assess you further, discuss your specific mental health condition, and decide if you qualify for an ESA
- Letter receipt: If you’re approved, you’ll receive your ESA letter in 24-48 hours; if you’re not approved, you’ll get a full refund, making this a completely risk-free option
Why Is an ESA Letter Necessary in Virginia?
In Virginia, an ESA letter is necessary for those who want to rent an apartment where animals are not generally allowed, as well as those who want to fly on an airplane and keep their pet with them in the cabin (rather than stowing them in the cargo area).
Presenting a letter may also allow you to bring your ESA into certain public spaces.
Virginia Emotional Support Animal Laws
Virginia’s service animal laws, as well as the ADA, do not include ESAs under the service animal category. Virginia law also states that an animal is not considered to provide a disability-specific task just because they provide emotional support, comfort, or companionship.
To legally have an ESA in Virginia, you must get an official ESA letter written by a licensed mental health provider. You do not need to register your animal or obtain a specific ESA certification.
Virginia ESA Travel Laws
Virginia ESA travel laws align with federal law — specifically, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). The ACAA states that those with mental or emotional illnesses can fly with their service animal in the cabin at no additional cost.
ESAs and the Air Carrier Access Act
Unlike service dogs, ESAs are not automatically granted the right to fly. However, if you present an ESA letter and give the airline proper notice, you will likely be allowed to keep your pet with you throughout the flight.
Also, ESA owners should remember that if their animals display noisy, threatening, or aggressive behavior, the airline may prevent them from boarding until the animal is stored in the cargo area.
Airline employees have to think of the best interests of all passengers; if an animal is not well-behaved or impinges on others’ safety and comfort, you may not be allowed to fly with them.
ESA Housing Laws
Virginia’s ESA housing laws are based on the regulations outlined and enforced by the Fair Housing Act (FHA).
The FHA is a federal law that prohibits landlords from discriminating against people with disabilities. The law states that it’s illegal to rent an apartment to someone with a disability because they have a service animal or ESA (even if the landlord doesn’t generally allow pets).
Unlike federal travel laws, the FHA covers ESAs as well as service animals.
Under the FHA, ESA owners can rent apartments that don’t typically permit animals. They also do not have to pay pet fees in apartments that charge pet rent or deposits (these are considered reasonable accommodations).
Can a Landlord Reject My ESA?
In some cases, a landlord can reject an ESA. For example, if you do not get permission and present an ESA letter first, they may tell you to either get rid of your animal or obtain the proper documentation.
Suppose your ESA is poorly behaved, damages the property, or causes fear or harm to other tenants. In that case, the landlord may also decide that you can no longer keep your pet there, even if they originally approved it.
ESAs in Student Housing
The FHA generally protects students who want to bring their ESA with them into an on-campus housing unit (dormitory, university-owned apartment, etc.).
As is the case with renting a property with an ESA, you’ll have to get permission from the dean of the university or another official before moving in. The university may also recommend that you live alone, so you don’t have to worry about your ESA being a nuisance to others.
It’s worth noting, too, that ESAs may not be allowed in areas of campus where service dogs can go. For example, you likely won’t be able to bring them to class with you, to the dining hall, or to the library.
Places to Take Your Emotional Support Animal
Along with being permitted in generally non-pet-friendly housing and airplane cabins, emotional support animals are also allowed in many stores, hotels, parks, and other pet-friendly locations.
The following are some specific places in Virginia where you might be allowed to take your ESA:
- Art and Soul restaurant
- Keswick Vineyards
- Wild Wolf Brewing Company
- Threepenny Cafe
- Glass House Winery
- Room 11
- Byers Street Bistro
- Bluestone Vineyard
- Union Market
- Appomattox Court House National Historic Park
- Booker T.Washington National Monument
- George Washington Birthplace National Monument
- The Blackburn Inn & Conference Center
- Wyndham Virginia Beach Oceanfront
- La Quinta Inn & Suites
Get Your ESA Letter with Pettable
Whether you want to fly with your pet, live with your pet in an apartment, take them with you to a college campus, or visit any of the previously mentioned locations, an ESA letter can help you make that happen.
Work with Pettable to quickly and legally obtain an ESA letter in just a few steps. We also offer resources for service dog training and emotional support dog training, so you can feel confident that your pet will be well-behaved and welcome in many different locations.