Hi stranger! Signing up for MypetMD is easy, free and puts the most relevant content at your fingertips.

Get Instant Access To

  • 24/7 alerts for pet-related recalls

  • Your own library of articles, blogs, and favorite pet names

  • Tools designed to keep your pets happy and healthy

or Connect with Facebook

By joining petMD, you agree to the Privacy Policy.

Emotional Support Pets – Separating Fact from Fallacy

by David F. Kramer


The Emotional Support Animal (ESA) is a relatively new feature on the landscape of working animals that include dogs and other animals that aid the blind, deaf, disabled, and those with life threatening conditions. Under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), a service animal is defined as a “dog or other animal that is trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.”


A task, by definition, can range from the very simple, such as picking up dropped objects for an owner prone to vertigo, or alerting a deaf owner when a TTD phone, doorbell or fire alarm rings, to the very complex work that Seeing Eye dogs do to help their owners safely navigate streets and sidewalks.


An Emotional Support Animal provides companionship and comfort to a person with a mental or emotional issue, such as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), depression, anxiety, phobias, or other afflictions. Like Service Animals, ESAs don’t require any documentation to be considered “official,”  but a prescription letter from a doctor or mental health professional can go a long way into securing their rights, though they are still severely limited in comparison to service animals.


On July 13, 2010, Attorney General Eric Holder signed a set of regulations that established an updated federal definition of a service animal, which became effective March 15, 2011.


Among the new conditions is the fact that, generally, only dogs are eligible. As well, service animals must be leashed or harnessed except when this would interfere with their work, service animals are exempt from breed bans and size limits, and the addition of miniature horses as service animals—where situations permit.


So, simply put, ESAs are not recognized as service animals and generally don’t enjoy the freedoms and federal regulations of conventional service animals. When it comes to ESAs, federal law only addresses housing and air travel. So, you might be able to keep an ESA in an apartment that doesn’t normally allow pets, or travel by air with your animal—though it would still most likely need to be in a carrier.


Are You Legally Required to Register Your ESA?


Unfortunately, like anything else, the laws and practices in place to help the truly disabled are often abused by unscrupulous people. Someone hoping to get a better parking spot at a concert or ball game might borrow the car of a disabled friend or relative, or even just take their handicapped placard and hang it from their own rear view mirror.


We can frown upon these folks, or even try to shame them directly when we catch them in the act, but indeed there are many disabling ailments and situations that we simply can’t see on the surface. The real problem comes when these behaviors are encouraged, or worse, when a business or organization tries to make a quick buck exploiting the baser proclivities of some people. Such is happening with ESAs.


If you begin to do some internet research on “Emotional Support Animals,” you’ll find the internet advertising pixies go quickly to work, peppering your Facebook feed and browser edges with a bevy of ads for places to “register” your pet as an ESA. These ads run the gamut, from tender pictures of disabled people nuzzling their dogs to ads that scream “TAKE YOUR DOG ANYWHERE!”


The latter, of course, is the most problematic, as it encourages fraud, but if you go a few clicks further into any of these sites—even the warm, fuzzy ones—they don’t differ all that much. Some of the most popular search results that come up are the rather official sounding Official Service Dog Registry, United States Dog Registry, the National Service Animal Registry, the Official ESA Registration of America, CertaPet, Emotional Pet Support, and The DogTor.


These websites all have an air of legitimacy, with links to ADA and FHA regulations, heart-warming customer testimonials, articles on advocacy for the truly disabled, and nods to the fine work that service animals do each day. However, these factors don’t change the simple truth: legitimate service animals don’t require any formal registration, and ESA documentation is something you can get for free with a little legwork.


ESAs are not limited to dogs or miniature horses. An Emotional Support Animal can be a cat, rat, rabbit, hamster, Guinea pig, chinchilla, hedgehog, or ferret. In fact, there are technically no exclusions, leaving the door wide open for emotional support boa constrictors and tarantulas. In a YouTube video from The New Yorker Magazine, Marc Phillipe Eskenazi uses an online service to register an emotional support pig, parakeet, turkey, and finally an alpaca to some humorous results in the streets and stores of New York City—you can check the video out here.


And that’s only fair, because in their own way, every pet that swims, flies, crawls, or curls up in your lap at the end of the day is an Emotional Support Animal—providing you with endless entertainment and unconditional love.


As a similar experiment, I attempted to register Franklin, my non-existent German Shepherd, as an emotional support dog using one of these services.  I was taken to a brief questionnaire that asked for my dog’s name and breed, my email address, and an open ended comment field simply called “notes” that didn’t ask for anything specific. In the field I wrote, “I have many anxieties and meet with my therapist once a week. She suggested that Franklin might be a good candidate for an Emotional Support Pet.”


While registration itself was “free,” the second page featured some ancillary items that began to add up. These products seemed to be optional, but the website didn’t go far out of its way to say if this was truly the case. For $25, I could have my dog’s name added to an online database and be given an ID number so that people questioning Franklin’s veracity could look him up to see he was on the level. A photo ID featuring myself was $54, and oddly, another ID with Franklin’s pic was an additional $54. It was recommended I also purchase a vest for my “working dog”; these ranged from $54 to $76, depending upon the dog’s weight. Franklin’s a big boy, so I opted for an extra-large vest.


And that was it. 


Next: Registering or Certifying Your ESA Will Not Give You Legal Protection