Emotional Support Pets and Service Pets: What the Law Says About Each

6 min read

What is an Emotional Support Animal?


According to Dr. Jennifer Coates, veterinary advisor with petMD, “emotional support animals are animals that are prescribed by mental health professionals as part of the treatment for a diagnosed mental or psychiatric disability.”

Emotional support animals (ESA) provide therapeutic benefits to their owners, and they do not need any sort of special training because they aren’t required to complete specific tasks. The benefits they provide are mostly emotional, for example easing the symptoms of PTSD, autism, bipolar disorders, depression, panic attacks, social phobias, stress, etc. Despite the fact that ESAs are often mistakenly lumped into the same category as service animals, they are given far fewer protections by federal law.


An emotional support animal must be prescribed by a mental health professional through a fairly rigorous process. A licensed therapist  can also write a letter outlining a client’s condition as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and the resulting need for an ESA. A letter or prescription will offer a bit of credibility for an ESA, but like a service animal, no official documentation is required. 


The Laws That Govern Emotional Support Animals


ESAs are supported on a federal level by the Air Carrier Access Act (ACCA) and the Fair Housing Act (FHA), but have very little enforceable law to fall back on in other situations. So, unless you’re trying to keep an ESA in your home or take it somewhere by airplane, you may very well be out of luck.  Emotional Support Animals are not granted access to places of public accommodation (where service animals would be allowed) and may face challenges if taken almost anywhere animals aren’t normally permitted.


The Fair Housing Act does address the right to be able to live with your ESA. Technically, only two requirements need to be satisfied: Does the person seeking to live with this animal have a disability (physical or mental), and does the ESA alleviate one or more of the symptoms of that person’s disability?


These types of requests are best made prior to signing a lease and should be in writing.


A note from a person’s doctor is all that needs to be provided in most cases. A landlord can request further documentation on a particular disability, as well as the need for the assistance of an ESA for said disability, but the particulars of a person’s individual status need not be provided. In fact, it is against the law for a landlord to press an applicant on the nature of his or her disability.


A landlord may not “unreasonably delay” granting a request for an ESA, but the courts have not specified a time period in which these must be granted, so the hardship generally falls back onto the renter. Any fees and restrictions that a landlord would normally apply to a pet owner cannot be enforced for an ESA, and the animal generally is permitted access anywhere on a rental property where people are permitted. However, tenants with ESAs may still be held financially responsible for damage caused by their animals, whether the damage occurs in their rental properties or in the common areas.