How to Get an Emotional Support Dog

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Emotional Support Dog Panic attacks are characterized by the sudden onset of intense fear, triggering severe reactions such as trembling, sweating, fast breathing, and a racing heart. People who experience such mental health issues may benefit from dogs with special training and the presence of the animal might be able to calm down such episodes. In this comprehensive guide, we discuss everything you need to know about how to get an emotional support dog along with other essential information.  

What are Emotional Support Animals? 

Just like their name suggests, an emotional support animal is a domesticated animal that can help alleviate the symptoms of emotional or mental illnesses. These animals provide therapeutic benefits to people suffering from anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and more. This type of animal is usually prescribed by a licensed mental health professional to help treat an individual. 

What is an Emotional Support Letter?

As mentioned above, emotional support animals are often prescribed, so you’ll need a mental health professional stating you need the care of an animal. An emotional support animal letter (ESA Letter) is an official document that confirms whether an individual has a legitimate need for the support that companion animals can provide. Moreover, it can give them certain legal rights under federal law.    

Apart from mental health professionals, ESA letters can be prescribed by other professionals in the field who come with a familiarity with a particular mental health condition, including a licensed therapist or a medical doctor. This letter recommends the use of emotional support animals to help manage a person’s mental health. A legitimate ESA letter will be a dated and signed letter printed on a licensed professional’s letterhead which includes their licensing details. 

Using an ESA letter will help to establish that a person’s disability confirms their need for an emotional support animal but only a legitimate ESA letter will be recognized under the law. Moreover, only legitimate ESA letters will entitle an individual to certain rights with reasonable accommodations from a housing provider while allowing animals to travel with their owners through ESA-friendly airlines. It’s also important to note that ESA letters won’t designate emotional support animals as service animals, since they are different from each other and come with different kinds of rights. 

Service Animals vs. Emotional Support Animals 

Today, an assistance animal can come in a wide range of forms, providing all kinds of services to people who rely on them for support. Emotional Support Animals, also known as comfort animals, can be therapy dogs that offer support and comfort to people living with emotional disabilities such as social phobias, depression, anxiety, and more. Among the most common kinds of emotional support animals are emotional support dogs, where some breeds are more popular than others. 

This is due to their natural talent for providing emotional comfort to patients; even so, there aren’t any federal regulations saying that only dogs can give this service. Other animals may also serve as emotional support animals, provided that they can provide the service — ESA’s, unlike service animals, aren’t given individual training to perform tasks. As such, they get limited rights when it comes to public access, and may not always be permitted for air travel.  

On the other hand, service animals are given extensive training (often in the form of specialized training), to help them provide essential assistance to their owners. The most common kind of service animals are service dogs, which are trained to perform specific tasks. For example, a blind person may use a seeing-eye dog to help them navigate places safely while giving their independence back.      

Other kinds of service dogs include hearing dogs, mobility assistance dogs, diabetic alert dogs, and many more. Because service dogs can help people perform major activities in life, they’re entitled to a wider range of rights and privileges under federal law. A psychiatric service dog receives specific training that helps it carry out tasks that can help with the emotional parts of an individual’s disability.    

This could mean giving deep pressure therapy to the service animal’s owner to help them through panic attacks. Psychiatric service dogs can also assist their owners by waking them up from night terrors or they can even take their handler to a safe space whenever they get an anxiety attack. Moreover, some psychiatric service dogs can help by reminding their owner to take their medication, known as a ‘Medical Reminder’ task. 

Much like other service animals, these dogs are given highly specialized training that allows them to provide support for their handlers and are often prescribed to individuals living with emotional disability. Because psychiatric service dogs are essential to their owner’s ability to thrive in their daily life, they’re entitled to have the same rights and privileges as other service dogs. Some of the most commonly used breeds for psychiatric services include German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, and Labrador Retrievers.   

While therapy animals don’t get the same rights that service animals or emotional support animals have, they still provide a wonderful service to their owners. You’ll commonly find therapy animals inside nursing homes and hospitals because it’s up to them to provide comfort. However, you’ll also find them at the site of natural disasters or major tragedies to give emotional support to everyone who needs it. 

Laws for Service and Emotional Support Animals 

Understanding the difference between emotional support animals and service animals is helpful when you’re trying to figure out the important aspects of owning one. These include the requirements of their training routine, how you can qualify for one, and the functions they need to perform as an assistance animal. Another vital distinction between emotional support animals and service animals is the privileges and rights that each has under federal regulations.

Americans with Disabilities Act

This law was put into effect in 1990 which prohibits discrimination against anyone with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) extends to all aspects of public life; this includes transportation, education, public accommodations, and employment. For example, The United States Department of Transportation makes sure that all transit agencies adhere to the ADA by making public transit facilities and vehicles accessible for individuals with disabilities. 

In terms of service animals, the ADA is a crucial part of the law that a disabled person should be familiar with. It states that both local and state governments, nonprofit organizations, and businesses that serve the general public must let service animals accompany individuals with disabilities in every area of their facilities. This law is also applicable to the following: 

  • Public access rights, which means service animals may accompany their owners in public places like restaurants, malls, local government agencies, and stores where they aren’t normally permitted. 
  • Educational facility access rights, which means that service animals may be permitted to come with their owners inside schools, universities, and colleges. 

But apart from the Americans with Disabilities Act, individuals in need of emotional support animals should also familiarize themselves with two other federal statutes which are discussed below. 

Fair Housing Act

This act applies to service animals and emotional support animals; it was first signed into law back in 1968 which protects people from discrimination regarding housing-related activities. It means providing equal renting opportunities to everyone regardless of their religion, race, or disability. The Fair Housing Act makes sure that those with a mental disability or mental illness won’t experience any discrimination because they need a service animal or an emotional support animal. 

Instead, housing providers must provide reasonable accommodations for such individuals without charging any kind of fee, like a pet deposit. People with an emotional support animal will need to provide their landlord with an ESA housing letter to confirm their need for support. Because of this, it’s essential that individuals with disabilities file a legitimate ESA letter since this is the only piece of documentation accepted under the law. 

As already mentioned, these letters must be dated and signed by a licensed mental health professional, must include their licensing information, and need to be printed on their letterhead. Much like the ADA, there are federal departments and local government agencies that ensure equal and fair housing opportunities for everyone. This includes the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which also provides a wide range of resources on tenant laws, rights, and protections. 

Air Carrier Access Act

First put into effect in 1986, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) prohibits discrimination of a disabled person’s need for air travel. As a result, all air carriers must accommodate the needs of disabled passengers, which includes their service animals. Because of this law, service animals are able to ride inside the airline cabin with their owners (as long as the pet isn’t too heavy or too big), and people with disabilities can’t be charged a pet fee whenever traveling with their service animal.

The ACAA applies to every U.S. airline, along with flights to and from the United States through foreign airlines. They can, however, request specific documents as well as a 48-hour advanced notice if the service dog is boarding a flight. This can include official documents from their licensed mental health professional that confirm the individual’s emotional or mental disability which proves their need for an assistance animal. 

In terms of psychiatric service dogs, this document can be a Psychiatric Service Dog Letter or a Psychiatric Service Dog Travel Letter. Those that have emotional support animals can provide an ESA Travel Letter but take note that the acceptance of ESAs on flights will vary from one airline to another. As such, travelers should contact their airline ahead of time to confirm restrictions and policies when it comes to their emotional support dogs or other kinds of assistance animals. 

If an airline staff ever violates a disabled person’s rights as specified by the ACAA, that person has the right to approach a Complaints Resolution Official (CRO). According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the CRO is an expert on issues regarding disability accommodation and the airline is required to provide one at no cost. One must be provided in person through telephone or in-person during times of operation.  

Are ESAs Accepted on Planes?

The U.S. Department of Transportation has allowed every individual airline to have its own regulations and policies on emotional support animals since January 11, 2021, as a result of the COVID-19 epidemic. As such, airlines such as United, Delta, and Air Canada no longer consider ESAs as a kind of assistance animal, but they still allow individuals to travel with a comfort animal. Keep in mind that they will charge pet fees in the same way that pet owners pay when traveling with their companion animals.      

However, there are still restrictions when it comes to an animal’s size, weight, or breed, so ESA owners will need to contact the airline they’re flying with in advance to get more details on their policies. Those with specific concerns may also think about traveling with ESA-friendly air carriers that still allow ESAs inside their cabins. Again, they will look for legal requirements such as an ESA letter to confirm the animal is needed to help with a person’s mental disability or emotional condition.  

How You Can Qualify for an Emotional Support Animal

As we’ve explained above, comfort animals such as an ESA dog are usually prescribed for people living with emotional conditions or mental disabilities such as depression, PTSD, anxiety, and other kinds of mental disorders. However, the person’s disability must be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), a manual that mental health professionals commonly refer to when looking to establish a suitable diagnosis. To become qualified for a service animal, a licensed mental health professional will need to first determine that a person has a disability found in the DSM. 

People who don’t have access to a physician or mental health professional can use telehealth services to help make the process of acquiring an emotional support dog much easier. Telehealth organizations like CertaPet can help provide access to mental health care while focusing on providing services to people looking for animal-assisted solutions as part of the treatment plan. Generally, the process to get an ESA letter will start by filling up an online questionnaire from a telehealth platform.     

These online questionnaires serve as a way to pre-screen individuals when determining if they qualify for an emotional support animal. The questions should only take a few minutes to complete, and if this pre-screening determines that a person can get an ESA, they can get started on a consultation with a licensed mental health professional. They will then discuss that individual’s needs; should the professional believe that an ESA will benefit the patient, they can issue an ESA letter. 

Generally, an individual will be given immediate access to a PDF version of the ESA letter which can be easily printed from their home computer. Moreover, many telehealth platforms now offer the option of having an ESA letter mailed to them, but be sure to check that it’s a legitimate copy that is dated and signed by a prescribing professional, which includes their licensing information, and printed with their letterhead. These letters should clearly establish that their patient has a confirmed disability and that they’re in need of an ESA to provide them with support.  

Getting an ESA letter is the first step to getting an emotional support animal, and it entitles the holder to legal protections in terms of housing. As a result, people with disabilities can be provided reasonable accommodation under the Fair Housing Act so they can’t be denied housing even inside no-pets properties. Having an ESA letter also means that they can provide the needed documentation when traveling or flying with an emotional support animal. 

What Kinds of Animals Can Be Used for Emotional Support?

While emotional support dogs are the most common kind of comfort animal, these can take the form of various domestic animals. The reason for this is that emotional support dogs are easy to train and are generally allowed to enter a wide range of places such as public parks as well as other locations that are dog-friendly. Fortunately, cats, rabbits, and even a miniature horse can be trained as ESAs — exotic animals such as snakes, sugar gliders, and certain kinds of birds, insects, and amphibians may also be trained as ESAs. 

The key difference between domestic animals and exotic ones is that the latter won’t be entitled to the same reasonable accommodations as the former. For example, airlines that allow for ESAs will only typically permit cats and dogs onboard, since untrained animals may pose a risk to public health. Because of this, mental health professionals will often recommend patients choose a domestic animal to be their ESA.  

Getting an Emotional Support Animal

If an individual already has a pet, it can serve as their ESA provided that it already gives its owner support and comfort. But if they are yet to get an animal, they can choose an ESA regardless of its breed, species, weight, or size, which makes the selection process much easier for individuals looking for the right animal for their specific needs. A licensed mental health professional can recommend a particular domestic animal to be their patient’s ESA to ensure that they get the most out of their pet’s companionship. 

They will also consider their patients’ travel and housing situations, but many will choose dogs because they can be easily trained and can adapt to a wide range of environments. People can quickly find their ESA through rescue groups or local animal shelters; these organizations will let individuals interact with their cat or dog of choice. Doing this will ensure that they share a connection while allowing patients to choose an animal that will provide the comfort and support they’re after. 

Emotional Support Dog FAQs

Below are some of the most commonly asked questions by individuals looking for an emotional support dog.

Can I Get More than One Emotional Support Animal?

This is possible if a certified mental health professional agrees that their patient can benefit from having more than one animal to help improve their well-being. It may also help if each animal plays a different role from each other in their treatment plan. However, an ESA letter will be required for each animal.    

What Happens if My Landlord Doesn’t Accept Pets?

Thanks to the Fair Housing Act, any individual with a mental illness or disability must not experience discrimination with housing as a result of their need for an ESA. All housing providers are required to accept ESAs living with their owners, no matter what their pet policy is. They’re also prohibited from charging additional fees related to their ESA. 

Are There Size Limits for ESAs?

In general, there are no restrictions when it comes to choosing your ESA’s breed, size, species, or weight. But there might be a few considerations when it comes to ESA-friendly airlines in terms of dog breed. Moreover, other airlines might not allow certain species such as exotic animals to board their planes. 

Are ESAs Allowed in Public Places?

Unfortunately, ESAs aren’t allowed access to the same areas as service dogs and aren’t always allowed to roam around public places. While legitimate ESA letters will allow owners and their dogs to get reasonable accommodation in terms of housing as well as travel on ESA-friendly airlines, it doesn’t cover all public areas. ESAs might not be allowed inside certain establishments such as hotels and restaurants.  

Conclusion 

An emotional support dog can be a great help to individuals with mental disabilities and emotional conditions, so it’s a good idea to get started with an ESA registration. As such, getting a furry friend for these individuals won’t just help to give them comfort but will also provide them with support when they need it the most. Finally, an emotional support dog will provide its owner with unconditional love, while providing many other benefits in terms of housing and flying.

 

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