What Qualifies for an Emotional Support Animal


Emotional support animals (ESAs) can benefit many lives. Unfortunately, it can be quite difficult to get an emotional support animal when you need one. While emotional support animals no longer have the right to fly with their handlers (but they still can, depending on the airline), they live with them in apartments, co-ops, condos, and other types of communities that don’t allow regular pets. 

Qualifying Letters

Individuals with emotional support animals must have a qualifying emotional disability. You won’t qualify for an ESA if you don’t have a certified emotional disability by a psychologist, therapist, or psychiatrist. The psychologist or other mental health professional must write a letter stating your disability while providing their credentials and saying that having an ESA can be an effective part of your treatment. 

These letters do not qualify you for an emotional support animal for your entire life. Instead, they expire after a year, so you must have a continuous relationship with a mental health services provider who can continue to write the letter for you. 

It’s important to note that an ESA is not the same as a service dog. While their functions are similar, there are a few differences between these types of animals. For example, a service dog is specially trained to perform different functions or jobs for someone with a physical or emotional disability. At the same time, an ESA serves mostly as an emotional companion and doesn’t require any specialized training. 

Additionally, service dogs have more rights and protections than ESAs through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). For example, you can take a service dog anywhere, and they can’t be denied access, while emotional support animals aren’t allowed everywhere. There’s also a difference between ESAs and psychiatric service dogs. Psychiatric service dogs have specific training working with people whose disabilities are caused by mental illnesses. They can detect psychiatric episodes like panic attacks and provide comfort to reduce the effects. While similar to an ESA, ESA animals do not have this level of training. Psychiatric service dogs do more than provide emotional support; they may remind their owners when it’s time to take their medications or search rooms for an individual suffering from PTSD. 

That being said, ESAs can still be integral to someone’s treatment and drastically improve their emotional health. 

What Disorders Qualify You for Being an Owner?

Many types of emotional disorders qualify children and adults for an emotional support animal, including: 

  • Learning disorders
  • Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Motor skills disorders
  • Substance addiction
  • Cognitive disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

How Do You Get an ESA?

ESAs don’t have to be certified in a legal sense. In addition, unlike service dogs, there are no specific training requirements they must undergo. Therefore, any dog or cat can become an ESA because they don’t have to be certified. Instead, you must obtain an ESA letter from your doctor or mental health services provider and choose an animal. 

Landlords or anyone else that allows ESAs will likely ask you for a certificate or ID proving your dog is an ESA. However, these individuals are misinformed as you do not need any of that documentation. The only proof you need is your ESA letter from your state-licensed doctor or therapist. In addition, your dog does not have to be registered on any official website, as the Fair Housing Act does not recognize certifications of ESAs. So how do you certify your emotional support animal? All you have to do is connect with a licensed doctor or therapist and determine your need for an ESA before obtaining your documents. There is no need to register any of your pets as ESAs. 

Ultimately, if you want an ESA, which will allow you to bring your pet some places with you, you’ll need to talk to a licensed mental health professional to evaluate your needs. These professionals will determine whether or not you qualify as someone who could benefit from an ESA after your initial diagnosis. Of course, not everyone with an emotional disability qualifies for an ESA. Your doctor or therapist must determine whether a dog will alleviate the symptoms of your disability. For example, someone suffering from panic attacks might find their dog helps soothe them, while someone with depression may need their dog to give them a reason to get outside for some exercise in the form of a daily walk.

If you already have a dog, it can become your ESA. However, if you’re looking for a pet that can help you thrive, you have a few options, including adoption from a shelter or buying one from a breeder. Of course, you have a few other options, like buying one from a pet store, but these places treat their animals poorly, which can lead to behavioral issues in dogs, including aggression or anxiety. Individuals suffering from mental health issues should look for dogs who can keep them calm. Therefore, you might not want an aggressive or high-energy dog. 

Training ESAs

While ESAs don’t require any specialized training, they should still be trained if you want them to improve your life and become an essential part of your treatment. If you’re unsure how to train a dog, you can talk to a local dog trainer to help ensure your dog has good behavior and follows basic commands, especially in public. 

While ESAs don’t require special or extensive training, they must still receive some training. After all, you wouldn’t want to take your ESA on a plane just for them to have an accident. All dogs living in apartments and condos must be housebroken and under your control when in public. Additionally, they’ll need to be up to date on their vaccines. Depending on where you live, your landlord may have additional rules for ESAs, even if they don’t allow regular pets. For example, they may require your dog to be neutered or spayed.

Where Can ESAs Go?

Service dogs are allowed to go anywhere with their owner. For example, you may see a service dog on a bus, in the grocery store, or a restaurant. However, ESAs aren’t protected like service dogs; anyone can deny your dog entry. For example, airlines are no longer legally required to allow ESAs on flights, although many still do. In addition, restaurants and any other public places are not required to let your dog enter. However, ESAs are required by law to be allowed in residences, so if you live in an apartment, you won’t have to worry about getting evicted for having an ESA. 

Final Thoughts

Unfortunately, while you may love pets, ESAs aren’t right for everyone. Individuals suffering from emotional disabilities may find it difficult to care for a pet of any kind. Since ESAs don’t have specialized training, they will not be able to support you as a service dog would. Therefore, you’ll still have to take your dog to the vet and care for your mental health needs. 

Megan Isola

Megan Isola holds a Bachelor of Science in Hospitality and a minor in Business Marketing from Cal State University Chico. She enjoys going to concerts, trying new restaurants, and hanging out with friends. 

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