Emotional Support Pets Explained

7 min read

By David F. Kramer


Service animals are dogs or other animals that are specially trained to perform essential life tasks and assist people with physical or mental disabilities. They can also be referred to as assistance, support, or helper animals, depending upon their function.


The use of dogs and other domesticated animals to aid those with disabilities has most likely occurred throughout history, whether purposeful or by accident.  Consider this line from Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” written in 1843, describing the personage of one Ebenezer Scrooge:


“ Even the blind men’s dogs appeared to know Scrooge; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts;  and they would wag their tails as though they said, ‘No eye at all is better than an evil eye, Dark Master.’”


After the end of World War I, dogs began to be trained in earnest to aid those who lost their sight in that terrible conflict. In 1929, Morris Frank and Dorothy Harrison Eustis were instrumental in founding The Seeing Eye, the oldest existing guide dog school in the world, in Nashville, Tenn., and the term “seeing eye dog” was thrust into modern parlance.


Since that time, dogs and other types of service animals have been purposefully trained to aid the blind, deaf, seizure prone, and people with physical ailments of all types. The owners of these animals developed a bond that goes beyond the usual one between a pet and its guardian. People looked to these animals to protect their very lives as well as for emotional support and love. Perhaps it is out of this bond that the concept of the Emotional Support Animal (ESA) was born.


Support animals that deal with mental and emotional issues rather than physical ones fall into three basic categories: psychiatric service animals, therapy animals, and emotional support animals.


A psychiatric service animal is trained to aid a person who has an emotional or mental disability that gets in the way of the completion of necessary life tasks. Therapy animals are mainly used to provide comfort and security, such as those that visit hospitals, nursing homes, and schools. An emotional support animal is “prescribed” by a mental health professional through a fairly rigorous process. A licensed therapist needs to submit a letter outlining a client’s condition as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV and DSM V).


Or as Dr. Jennifer Coates, a veterinarian in Fort Collins, CO, puts it, “all pets make us feel better about ourselves and the world we live in, but an emotional support animal goes further. An ESA must be prescribed by a mental health professional as part of the treatment for a diagnosed mental or psychiatric disability.”


Registering an Emotional Support Animal


There are many organizations that can help to register an emotional support animal, and as with most anything these days, this can be done online. Such resources include the ESA Registration of America, the National Service Animal Registry, the Service Dog Registration of America, Chilhowee Psychological Services, and many others.


For a fee, these organizations will help to register your animal and navigate the legal landscape that comes with emotional support animals. They can also provide you with a vest and other signage that indicates that your companion is a working service animal, though this is not always necessary (or recognized) by law. They also do a fair amount of advocacy as to where emotional support animals are allowed, even going as far as to help you lodge a complaint against a business or agency you feel has discriminated against you and your animal.


In practice, emotional Support Animals are not limited to dogs; an ESA can be a cat, rabbit, bird, hamster, hedgehog, or almost any animal of reasonable size and temperament. Of course, this is all within certain limits. Fred, your emotional support tarantula, might face a few challenges in getting the proper credentials. Legally-speaking however, the acceptance of an ESA is another thing entirely.


(Editor's note: There has been a good deal of controversy surrounding the business model of certifying or registering ESAs. There may not be any legal protection afforded with these certifications. We suggest buyer beware when dealing with any business that promises legal documentation for your ESA. Please practice due diligence in researching these businesses before exchanging money for credentials with them.)


Legal Protection for Service and Emotional Support Animals


The purpose of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) is to prohibit and combat discrimination in employment, state and local government activities, public and commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications. While most people associate the Act with the workplace, education, or wheelchair access to public and private buildings, it also governs the laws and rights when it comes to service animals. This includes how disabilities are determined, how service animals are certified, and where they are permitted.


However, since March 15, 2011, only dogs are recognized as service animals as part of the new set of regulations. Dogs that provide comfort and emotional support are NOT considered service animals under the Act.


The reasoning behind this is that these animals have not been trained for a specific purpose. Unfortunately, these factors lead to ESAs being classified as something only slightly above the level of a pet, so ESA owners might find themselves unable to take their animals into places and situations where conventional pets are not allowed (stores, hotels, restaurants, etc.)


Housing issues are not governed by the ADA when it comes to emotional support pets, but by the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA), with enforcement by Housing and Urban Development (HUD).


Trying to get an ESA into an apartment that doesn’t allow pets will take some legal wrangling, and in the end you still might be out of luck. Sadly, the emotional distress that would come from a landlord upholding a “no pets” policy doesn’t carry much weight from a legal standpoint.


Even if you already have a leased apartment and suffer a trauma that leads to an officially diagnosed condition (e.g., post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD), you may still have an uphill battle sharing your home with a companion that isn’t properly classified as a service animal. Historically, service animals for physical disabilities have had an easier go of things than those used for mental and emotional issues.


Air Travel with Your Emotional Support Animal


When it comes to traveling by air with your ESA, there’s a little more leeway, and a better chance that your animal will be allowed to accompany you on your flight.


According to the United Airlines website, trained service animals for physical disabilities are allowed on flights, and must sit directly in front of their owner’s seat without protruding into the aisle. Smaller animals can be housed in kennels, provided they meet stowage requirements (i.e., the animal carrier fits under the seat). You may not need official certification documents to bring your service animal onto domestic flights, but they may be needed for international travel.


The process, however, is different for emotional support animals. ESA owners will definitely need official documentation for domestic flights, and additional documents for international travel. It may also be necessary to consult the consulate of your foreign destination to check on local laws concerning service animals and ESAs.


Traveling with an emotional support animal requires 48 hours notice, and submittal of a form that must be completed by a mental health professional.


For international travel, the airline recommends making arrangements four weeks in advance. Smaller ESAs might require a proper kennel, which must be able to be stowed under the seat for takeoff and landing. If an animal is well behaved, an ESA might be able to sit at your feet the way a service dog would, but chances are you won’t be able to travel with your companion on your lap.


So, people who wish to travel with ESAs will certainly need to do some legwork beforehand, and even after all is said and done, much of this will be at the discretion of the airline you choose. So, it’s obviously a good idea to hash things out well in advance of your trip.


Defining an Emotional Support Animal


Are there people who “game the system” when it comes to the issue of Emotional Support Animals? The answer is most likely yes. The online organizations mentioned in this article are businesses first and foremost, and obviously go to different lengths to vet individual applicants as far as their degree of disability is concerned to make their bottom lines. A landlord, business owner, or even an airline might turn their heads and allow an improperly documented ESA to avoid being seen as unsympathetic to those with disabilities or become the target of a negative social media campaign.


The status of Emotional Support Animals is in flux, and only the government and the court system will determine what the future holds.