Emotional Support Pets: Separating Fact from Fallacy

By PetMD Editorial on Sep. 2, 2016

by David F. Kramer

The emotional support animal (ESA) is relatively new in the landscape of working animals, and it’s important to understand that service animals and emotional support animals are treated very differently under the law.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service animal 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.

In comparison, an emotional support animal provides companionship and comfort to a person with a mental or emotional issue, such as PTSD, depression, anxiety, phobias, or other afflictions. It is important to note that owners cannot simply designate their pets as emotional support animals. ESAs must be “prescribed by mental health professionals as part of the treatment for a diagnosed mental or psychiatric disability,” according to Dr. Jennifer Coates, veterinary advisor with petMD.

Simply put, ESAs are not recognized as service animals and generally don’t enjoy the same freedoms and federal protection. 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), but ESAs can be legally barred from most public and private facilities.

Are You Legally Required to Register Your ESA?

The websites of the numerous companies that offer to “register” ESAs all have an air of legitimacy, with links to the ADA and other 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 emotional support animals don’t require any formal registration, and ESA documentation is something you can get for free with a little legwork.


In truth, the legal difference between a service animal and ESA is profound. While neither require official documentation, service animals are permitted almost everywhere that conventional pets are not—and for the most part, the same cannot be said for ESAs. A doctor or mental health professional can write a prescription letter stating your need for an ESA, which you can keep with you in case you are challenged, but it is certainly not a guarantee that your ESA will be allowed to stay with you in every situation. ESA owners can try to use these letters to get their animals into public places where pets are not permitted, but it is generally at the discretion of the business or property owner to make the call. Again, this is unlike the case with service animals, where denying them access is a violation of the ADA.

Should You Pay to Get an ESA Letter?

With no official documentation legally required or recognized for an ESA, a letter  does not appear to serve any real purpose. Offering proof that your pet is a legitimate ESA with a letter from your own personal doctor is certainly worth a try but paying for a letter produced by a website doesn’t make much sense.

Do ESAs serve a genuine purpose? Sure they do. The benefits of companion animals have been well studied and these are surely even more important when people are suffering from diagnosed emotional disorders. If your doctor or therapist feels that a furry friend could help you get through tough times or endure the trappings of our modern world, then have at it. But simply put, these decisions and actions are best made between a doctor and patient, rather than any one of a number of online companies that look at a mental disability and see only dollar signs. 

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