An emotional support animal can be a true lifesaver for someone dealing with mental health problems. From offering companionship and the stability of a routine to serving as a trusted guide through anxiety-inducing social situations, emotional support animals offer invaluable support in addition to the non-judgmental, unconditional love that animals already provide so freely.
All that being said, emotional support animals—a term that is often shortened to just "ESAs"—aren't pets, at least by the standard definition of the term. They’re not service animals or therapy animals, either. Instead, ESAs have unique legal allowances that are specific to their designation. In order to enjoy not just the benefits of an emotional support animal but the legal rights as well, individuals have to register their ESAs. And it’s a process that isn’t always obvious to everyone.
The Difference Between an ESA and a Service or Therapy Animal
While considering to register an emotional support animal, it helps to understand what makes ESAs different from other types of “specialty” animals, most notably service and therapy animals, of which they are many unique subtypes.
In their most basic definition, ESAs are animals who provide their caregivers with therapeutic benefits. Unlike a psychiatric service dog, who may, for example, turn on the lights before their handler enters a room to help them deal with phobias or symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, an ESA supports their human through love and companionship.
As anyone who has ever shared their life with a pet knows, animals are uniquely suited to connecting with humans on a deep level. A beloved animal companion may be the first one an individual goes to when they need someone to cry to or someone who can listen without judgment. This comes without the training that a service animal or therapy must go through.
Though they provide incredibly important services, emotional support animals are considered to be somewhere in between the realms of service or therapy animals and standard pets. So while they may not get a wide range of legal rights, they do get some. And that’s where registration comes in.
Emotional Support Animals Rights
The rights of emotional support animals are relegated to two key areas: travel and housing. Emotional support animals are permitted to travel by plane without the use of a carrier or added fee, and may serve as a basis to circumvent no-pet policies in rental units.
Because of these allowances, you may have noticed some debate over the validity of ESAs, particularly when it comes to air travel. But as it stands today, emotional support animals and their handlers do have certain legal rights above and beyond those of typical pets and their caregivers. And for the individuals who rely on their ESAs for support, these rights are invaluable.
How to Register an ESA
There is no official registration database for emotional support animals. Instead, any requested allowances for an ESA must be bolstered with a letter from a certified mental health professional. This letter should:
- Be legitimate—i.e. on professional letterhead and written by a qualified physician and/or mental health provider.
- Include the provider’s license number, as well as their signature and the date the letter was signed.
- Clearly explain your need for an emotional support animal.
If you don’t already have a mental health provider, you have two options: You can either make an appointment with one and get your letter that way, or you can use an online ESA letter service, such as Emotional Pet Support, ESA Doctors, or CertaPet. Note that these services do cost money, and you will be required to complete a mental health evaluation before receiving your letter.
Once you have certified your ESA, be sure to keep your letter readily available, as it may be requested when you go fly with your animal or when you are looking for housing. Under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), landlords cannot discriminate against tenants who use an animal for assistance, including for emotional support, but they can if you don’t have the letter. While it is not required, you could also purchase a vest for your animal that designates them as an ESA.