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Emotional Support Animals: What Are They?

Many people are familiar with their existence, but exactly what is an emotional support animal? Emotional support animals, or ESAs, are a type of assistance animal protected under federal law that helps people with their mental or emotional health.

April Brightman
January 12, 2024
November 1, 2023
8 minute read
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November 1, 2023
August 18, 2021
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Emotional support animals are a type of assistance animal that are often misunderstood. This guide will tell you everything you need to know about ESAs.

Importantly, emotional support animals are offered protections by law that enable them to live with their owner wherever they choose to reside. This means that ESAs are essentially exempt from pet fees, breed restrictions, and any rule that may prevent someone in need from being able to have their support animal with them. While this covers the broad strokes of what an emotional support animal is, the rest of this article will go into detail on everything you need to know about emotional support animals.

What is an Emotional Support Animal?

Emotional support animals or ESAs provide support for individuals with mental health conditions or disabilities. Their existence is hugely beneficial for managing many symptoms associated with a variety of different conditions. ESAs can be any type of animal including cats, dogs, rabbits, and even birds, but aren’t considered service animals under federal law.

Emotional Support Animals: Defined

The exact definition of an emotional support animal can be difficult to pin down as they are distinct from a standard pet but also aren't quite a service animal. Emotional support animals fall under a category called "assistance animals" along with service animals. Assistance animals are defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development as the following:

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. An assistance animal is not a pet.

Two key distinctions make emotional support animals unique from other assistance animals: training and legal protection.

  1. Emotional support animals require no formal training - Unlike service animals, emotional support animals do not need any specific training to be recognized as assistance animals. ESAs provide benefits to their owner's mental and emotional health simply with their positive demeanor and unconditional love.
  2. Emotional support animals have less legal protection - Emotional support animals are only protected in private housing under the Fair Housing Act as recognition that ESAs provide critical mental health benefits and should be allowed to live with their owner. However, due to a lack of training and the differing needs of their owner, emotional support animals are not allowed into public places that do not allow pets, unlike service animals.

What Do Emotional Support Animals Do?

Emotional support animals don’t need to be trained to perform specific tasks. The support they provide comes mainly from their companionship and their presence. ESAs help reduce stress and loneliness and provide comfort to individuals with challenges related to mental health conditions. 

Some of the ways emotional support animals support their humans are:

  • Reducing stress levels and anxiety  
  • Facilitating more social connections
  • Reducing feelings of loneliness
  • Lowering social anxiety and enhancing outside networks. 
  • Provide companionship, comfort, and support with their presence

Other significant benefits of emotional support animals are their devoted love and friendship and the way they help their handlers establish and stick to a routine. The necessary care of feeding, grooming, and interacting with an animal can make an incredible difference in creating a sense of purpose for those struggling with mental health

Another benefit of certifying your pet companion as an emotional support animal is the fact that they can live anywhere with you (unlike regular pets). This way you’ll never have to worry about rental housing that won’t allow your furry best friend to go with you. Once they’re certified as an ESA they’re exempt from policies that could stop them.

A woman cuddling with her dog on the couch.

Who Can an Emotional Support Animal Help?

Emotional support animals can help a huge range of individuals in all kinds of circumstances. They can provide support to individuals with mental health conditions like anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as assist those managing conditions like substance abuse recovery, learning disabilities like ADD and ADHD, and physical challenges like motor skill disorders.

What Types of Animals Can Be Emotional Support Animals?

Any animal that is commonly kept as a domesticated pet can be an emotional support animal. The most popular kinds of emotional support animals are dogs and cats, but other less common pets that can be emotional support animals include:

  • Rabbits
  • Hamsters
  • Guinea Pigs
  • Birds
  • Hedgehogs
  • Domesticated Rats and Mice
  • Minipigs
  • Mini Horses
  • Ponies
  • Ferrets
  • Chickens

The only way to determine if your pet qualifies as an emotional support animal is to speak with a licensed mental health professional (LMHP) and explain to them how your pet assists your mental health condition. You should also be aware that landlords are allowed to deny unreasonable ESA accommodation requests that may cause undue financial burden. For example, a rabbit in an extremely small apartment may be reasonable, but a large breed of dog may not be.

Common Emotional Support Animal Misconceptions:

Sometimes there can be some confusion and misconceptions about emotional support animals. We’re here to clear up the facts about ESAs.

Emotional Support Animals are not Service Animals

While emotional support animals are considered a type of assistance animal, they are not legally considered service animals. The main difference between psychiatric service dogs and emotional support animals is their training — ESAs aren’t required to be trained while service dogs are required to be specifically and individually trained.

Emotional Support Animals are not Pets

Under federal laws that protect individuals' rights to emotional support animals, like the Fair Housing Act (FHA), neither service animals nor emotional support animals are considered pets. They’re considered medical tools used to help manage symptoms of a variety of qualifying conditions.

Emotional support animals and service animals aren’t considered pets, but when it comes to housing both types of assistance animals are exempt from typical pet policies. This means they can’t be restricted from certain buildings that typically don’t allow pets, and they aren’t subject to pet fees or pet deposits that apply to regular domestic animals. 

Emotional Support Animals do not Need Training

As we mentioned, emotional support animals don’t require any training to be considered certified ESAs. All that’s needed to certify an emotional support animal is a legitimate ESA letter.

Emotional support animals provide comfort with their presence and don’t need to be able to perform tasks for their handlers, unlike service animals which are required to have special training specific to performing tasks that assist their handler with disability-related challenges.

Emotional Support Animals Don’t Need Registration #’s, ID Tags, Vests, or Certificates

Emotional support animals aren’t required to wear any type of identifying gear, including ID tags, vests, or harnesses. They’re also not required to have any documentation like certificates or licenses. The only legitimate document that certifies an ESA is an official emotional support animal letter. Since there’s no legal registry or database for emotional support animals, a registration number or certificate of registration isn’t a valid document to protect you for things like housing rentals or traveling with your ESA.

A woman in the kitchen scrolling on her phone with a cat in her lap.

Where Can Emotional Support Animals Go?

Emotional support animals have certain rights under federal laws, but they don’t have quite all the same rights as service animals. Emotional support animals 

Emotional Support Animal Laws

The most important federal law that protects the rights of individuals using emotional support animals is the Fair Housing Act (FHA). Under the FHA, emotional support animals are considered essential assistance animals and have all the same rights as service animals when it comes to housing. This means they’re exempt from restrictive pet policies and from paying additional fees associated with pets, like monthly fees or deposits.

For even more details, check out our complete guide to emotional support animal and psychiatric service animal laws.

How Do You Get an Emotional Support Animal?

There are a few steps to get an emotional support animal, and Pettable can help you every step of the way. Start by taking our brief assessment (it usually takes about 3 minutes) to help us determine the best course of action for you. 

Once we get more information, Pettable will match you with a licensed provider in our network that spans all 50 states. No matter where you live in the U.S., we have a licensed health professional who can consult with you. After your consultation and determining your specific needs, you’ll receive your legitimate ESA letter certifying your emotional support animal and providing you with the documentation you need for housing, travel, or employment accommodations. 

What is an Emotional Support Animal Letter?

An emotional support animal letter — frequently called an ESA letter for short — is a legal medical document that certifies your need for an assistance animal. An ESA letter functions a lot like a prescription, only instead of medication you’re being prescribed an assistance animal. 

An ESA letter has to be written by a licensed health professional on the official letterhead of their practice. It has to include their licensed number, confirm that you have a qualifying disability, and their recommendation for an emotional support animal as part of your treatment plan. Once you have this letter, your emotional support animal is considered legal and legitimate, and you can rest assured your rights to keep them close are safe.

A woman sitting in the living room with her dog working on her laptop.

How to Get an Emotional Support Animal Letter

The process of getting an emotional support animal is quite simple, and depending on the state you live in you may be able to obtain an ESA letter in as little as 24 hours. The main thing required to obtain an ESA letter is to consult with a licensed mental health professional who has a valid license for your state of residence. The clinician will assess your mental health and whether an ESA could alleviate any of your symptoms, then write you an emotional support animal letter if you qualify.

Once you have the letter you're all set! Simply present the ESA letter to your landlord and you will be legally entitled to reasonable accommodation for you and your emotional support animal.

Getting Your ESA Letter Online with Pettable

If you need an emotional support animal letter and aren't currently in contact with a mental health professional in your state, we can help! Pettable has a network of licensed mental health professionals across all 50 states who are ready to consult with you as soon as today. Simply take our brief online assessment by clicking the button below and we will get you in touch with a professional in your state at your convenience.

Meet the author:
April Brightman

April Brightman is a freelance writer and outdoor enthusiast with a passion for traveling and hiking with her rescue pup, Marley. She's written for pet-centered sites like Outward Hound, as well as outdoorsy adventure brands like BearVault, Hipcamp, and Explorer Chick.

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