Animals are pure and loving beings that elicit a positive response in many of us. They can elevate our mood, lower our blood pressure, relieve stress, and decrease symptoms associated with anxiety and depression — it’s science. This positive response to an animal is the basis behind an emotional support animal (ESA) and the help they can provide their owners. Therapy animals aid others through this response as well, but an ESA provides extra support because of the incredible and unbreakable bond we’ve developed with our animal. But too many people take advantage of the confusion and loopholes in emotional support animal regulations.
Though many pet owners get a positive reaction from their pet, that doesn’t make them an ESA. The laws, rules, and regulations around what makes an animal an ESA can be confusing, but it’s important to distinguish. Service animals are highly trained for people with a disability, and therefore have many laws protecting them. ESAs are not the same, however, although some statutes also protect them. Understanding these laws is vital to prevent discrimination against legitimate ESAs, service dogs, and those living with disabilities.
Emotional Support Animals vs. Service Animals
ESAs and service animals are similar because each assists their owner in one way or another, but otherwise, the two are very different. Almost any animal can become an ESA regardless of their training, or in some cases, even their species. If your animal helps you when you experience symptoms associated with a mental health difficulty, a mental health professional may prescribe them as an aspect of your treatment. A service animal, on the other hand, is highly trained to complete specific tasks. These tasks include:
- Guiding someone who is blind.
- Signaling someone who is deaf.
- Providing medical alerts, such as sensing seizures, low blood sugar, panic attacks, etc.
- Completing tasks for someone with a physical disability.
- Reminding their handler to take medications.
- Getting help if their handler has an emergency.
Their training takes years, involves a lot of socialization, and works to create an animal that is less of a pet and more of an employee. Even so, their handlers also get all the benefits of pet ownership. Service animals are trained to stay calm and out of the way when at a standstill. Even a well-trained ESA has not received the extensive socialization and public-access training that a service dog has, and therefore is much more unpredictable in public settings.
How a pet becomes an ESA
Some sites on the internet say they can register your pet as an ESA, but know that the only legal way to certify your pet as an ESA is to go through the process with a licensed health professional. Obtaining a certification letter can’t be done online and has to be done by a therapist who understands your mental health struggles, diagnosis, and treatment plan.
Your pet’s certification as an ESA needs to be provided on your therapist’s official letterhead and should include their license number. Your pet has to be a vital component in your treatment, and chances are your therapist won’t write you the letter without significant discussions about it first.
ESAs are protected under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Fair Housing Act (FHA). These laws say that a landlord cannot discriminate against a disabled person who may request a reasonable accommodation for their disability, including a waiver of a no pet policy and pet deposit. This includes many college dorms and residence halls as well. However, there are exceptions. A tenant may be restricted from having an ESA if:
- The animal has proven to be a danger to others.
- The tenant isn’t caring for the pet.
- There is no documentation of the pet being an ESA.
If you are moving with your pet, consider their needs and yours and everyone else around you. Though an ESA is typically allowed in an aircraft cabin, yours may be overwhelmed in that setting. In that case, the dog may create a disturbance and even be dangerous to nearby people. If your ESA has no experience in planes, it may be best to find alternate travel means.
If you’re trying to find housing, your ESA can’t be discriminated against, no matter the size or breed. But it’s still helpful to find accommodation that suits your pet best. For example, if your ESA is a large high-energy dog, seeking out a small apartment likely won’t be the best for their well-being.
Public area restrictions
Service animals are allowed in any public area due to their extensive training and the fact that people with a service animal need them at any given moment. ESAs have to abide by the same established rules for regular pets and animals in any given public setting. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) allows people with disabilities to bring service animals into public places. But that only extends to dogs who have been individually trained to perform specific tasks.
Since ESAs are not extensively trained for public access, they are not protected in the same way. Some workplaces may allow an ESA depending on need and if it applies in a work setting. Securing permission to bring your ESA to work is entirely up to your employer’s discretion and is not a protected right.
The Trouble With Illegitimate ESAs
The confusion between service animals and ESAs and the people who exploit that confusion makes things even more difficult for people who need their service animal or their ESA. Fake ESA registration sites, “service animal” vests on ESAs, or people who claim they need their dog for emotional support when they want their dog to bypass their apartment’s no-pet policy make things harder for legitimate cases. ESAs are not the same as service animals, but they are incredibly beneficial for many people who need them.
An ESA can help someone out of the depths of depression, soothe an anxiety attack, and calm someone with autism. They may not be specially trained, but they make all the difference for many people who struggle with their mental health. Bogus ESAs make it harder for legitimate ESAs and service dogs to be accepted.
Creating a lifeline
For many, their ESA is the difference between functioning and drowning in the symptoms of a mental health struggle or disability. This is why many ESAs are granted housing or workplace access. However, this doesn’t translate to the training needed in any public place, so those laws need to be respected. If someone truly needs an animal to be with them at all times to be able to function, they must seek out a legitimate and highly trained service animal to do so.
Though an ESA and a service animal aren’t the same, each one has its place. If you have an ESA, know that there are emotional support animal regulations to protect your pet’s need. But you are required to go through the appropriate channels to have your pet legitimized by a healthcare professional.
– Noah Rue