For many individuals, a dog is more than just a furry friend – they’re an essential part of the person’s mental health support system. If you have a mental illness, such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or depression, your dog may provide a comforting presence that helps you cope with your symptoms.
If you rely on your dog for emotional support and comfort, you may be able to certify them as an emotional support animal. ESA status can make it easier for you to keep your dog with you when you travel or move to a new home.
What is an emotional support animal?
An emotional support animal is more than just a pet – they provide support and comfort to individuals dealing with mental and emotional disabilities. As medical professionals learn more about mental health, they can diagnose and treat previously overlooked conditions. In many cases, an ESA is an essential part of coping with a mental or emotional disability.
ESAs are not the same as service animals because they aren’t trained to perform specific tasks, such as guiding a blind person. By offering a supportive and comforting presence, an ESA can be just as important to an individual as a service animal. ESAs have certain rights under state and federal laws. To qualify for an ESA, you must have a psychological condition or mental illness (diagnosed by a licensed professional) for which your animal provides support and comfort.
Some mental illnesses that can benefit from an ESA include anxiety, stress disorder, panic attacks, bipolar disorder, depression, and PTSD. While any animal can qualify to be an ESA, dogs and cats are some of the most common examples.
What is an emotional support animal registry?
You have a pet that you want to designate as an ESA, so the next step is to submit your animal’s information to an official ESA registry, right? In fact, a state- or federal-level registry of ESAs does not exist.
There is no legitimate database of ESAs, nor is there any law that says you must register your emotional support animal. Service dog registration is not required either. There are, however, fraudulent emotional support animal registration websites that charge fees to “register” therapy animals, ESAs, and service dogs. These sites are usually scams. “Registering” your animal with one of these sites does not grant ESA legal rights.
What is an ESA letter?
An emotional support animal letter is an official document signed by a licensed mental health professional. It’s similar to a prescription from a medical doctor – it recommends a legal treatment for a specific condition. In this case, the “treatment” is your ESA.
The most important aspect of an official ESA letter is its legal power. An ESA recommendation gives you the right to have an emotional support animal in your home, even if the place where you live has restrictions on pets.
How is an ESA letter different from an ESA registry?
It may seem like an emotional support animal letter and an ESA registry accomplish the same function (legitimizing your pet as an ESA). However, only one of these has any legal power: an official emotional support animal letter.
Emotional support animal rights
An ESA letter gives your emotional support dog-specific rights related to travel and housing.
Fundamental housing rights in the U.S. for emotional support animals are based on a specific federal law: the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988. Under the Fair Housing Act, a landlord is not allowed to discriminate against a tenant on the basis of their need for a service dog or ESA.
In practice, this means that an official ESA letter gives you the right to have your emotional support animal live with you in any type of housing, including places that generally prohibit pets. Additionally, the FHA prohibits landlords from charging a pet fee for an emotional support animal or service animal.
Let’s say you have an emotional support dog and want to move into an apartment with a “no pets” policy. As long as you have an official emotional support animal letter, your landlord cannot prevent you from keeping your dog in the apartment. Emotional support dogs are also not usually subject to weight or breed restrictions. For example, even if the apartment complex only allows dogs under 40 pounds, you can still keep your 60-pound Golden Retriever ESA.
The FHA prevents a landlord from denying your rental application based on your disability or your need for an ESA. Once you have submitted your emotional animal support letter to your landlord, they are not allowed to ask for more details about your condition or request additional documentation.
There are some ESA rights related to travel, but these changed significantly in January 2021. Before then, the U.S. Department of Transportation required air carriers to allow ESAs under the Air Carrier Access Act. The ACAA prohibits air carriers from discriminating against passengers with disabilities and requires them to accommodate disabled passengers’ needs. Up until 2021, that meant that you could bring your ESA with you in the plane’s cabin for no additional fee.
However, the DOT amended the Air Carrier Access Act in January 2021 – the law no longer provides protection for ESAs. Trained service animals are still protected under the ACAA, but emotional support animals are not. While the amended law does not prevent air carriers from allowing ESAs to fly for free in the cabin, it no longer requires them to.
Some domestic and international airlines have chosen to continue allowing ESAs. Other carriers have changed their policies to allow only certain types of ESAs, such as small dogs. Unfortunately, many airlines have discontinued their ESA programs.
Before you fly, it’s essential to check with your airline to see if you can keep your ESA with you. If not, your emotional support animal may be able to fly as a pet, which means they must be in a carrier in the cargo compartment.
How do you qualify for an emotional support dog?
In general, qualifying for an emotional support dog requires you to have a psychological condition for which a dog can provide emotional support. Some common conditions that can qualify for an emotional support dog are depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety/panic attacks, and phobias. A licensed mental health professional must evaluate you to get a diagnosis and an official recommendation that identifies your dog as an ESA.
How do I certify an emotional support dog?
As stated above, there is no official emotional support dog registry or certification process. The only way to get legal protection for your emotional support animal is with an official ESA letter. This document can give ESA status to a dog (or another support animal) that you already have. You can also use the letter to obtain an ESA that will be protected under the FHA. Here are the steps to get an emotional support animal letter:
Make a Consultation Appointment
Maybe you already have a dog who provides emotional support for your mental health condition. Or perhaps you don’t have a dog yet but think you would benefit mentally and emotionally from having a canine companion. Either way, you’ll need an ESA letter, and the first step is to get evaluated by a licensed mental health professional.
Because an ESA letter is similar to a prescription, a healthcare provider can’t write one without evaluating your condition first. Federal and state laws require mental health professionals to conduct a live consultation with a patient before making a diagnosis or treatment recommendation. Evaluations can be held in person, but you can also meet with a provider over the phone or in a video call.
You can get an evaluation and an ESA recommendation letter from any primary care physician or mental health professional licensed to practice in your state. Some examples of licensed mental health professionals are therapists, psychiatrists, and psychologists. Pettable can connect you with an LMHP in your area.
When scheduling an evaluation, consider the nature and severity of your condition. For example, suppose your primary care physician is already treating you for mental or emotional disabilities. In that case, you may want to ask them for an ESA authorization because they already know the details of your case. However, if you have recently developed symptoms and aren’t sure about the state of your mental health, you may want to meet with a specialist, such as a psychiatrist.
Get Your Letter
During your evaluation with your physician or LMHP, you can discuss the topic of an ESA. You may already have a dog who comforts you and helps you cope with the symptoms of your mental disability. In that case, you can ask your healthcare provider if they think that your dog can qualify as an ESA.
There are no legal restrictions on types of dogs that can qualify as ESAs. You don’t need to get a trained service dog. A dog of any breed, size, and sex can be an ESA as long as you find comfort and support for your condition from the dog’s presence. However, if you don’t yet have an emotional support dog and your healthcare provider recommends one, they may be able to offer guidance on characteristics you should look for.
It’s important to note that you may have more than one ESA as long as you have the proper documentation. Discuss the requirements for your state with your LMHP or your primary care physician. They may be able to include details for more than one dog or animal in a single ESA letter, or they may need to write a separate document for each of your ESAs.
Keep Your Documentation Handy
As soon as you have a signed ESA letter, your dog is officially an emotional support dog. There is no need to sign up for an ESA registry or pay a “certification fee.” You don’t have to take any extra steps to certify your emotional support dog or get them an ID card.
An ESA letter is the only paperwork you need to prove your dog’s status as an ESA. You don’t need to get a special collar, vest, tag, or leash for your emotional support dog, although you can if you would like. Some people feel that an ESA vest or collar prevents people from asking unwelcome questions about their dog and their individual disability.
Because the recommendation letter from your medical professional is the thing that gives you and your dog legal protection, it’s essential to make sure you can easily access it. You may want to keep the original in a safe place and carry a copy with you. You can also keep a picture or electronic copy on your phone.
Landlords and other housing officials have the right to ask for your letter, and having it readily available can simplify the application process. Remember that you don’t need to provide any other documentation to a landlord, even if they ask.
4 Ways to spot fake ESA letters
An ESA letter must meet specific requirements based on federal and state law. Here are some signs that a letter is fake:
1. The letter mentions registration or certification.
Because there is no such thing as emotional support dog registration, any ESA document that is tied to a registry is probably fraudulent. A legitimate facilitator for ESA letters, such as Pettable, will not try to charge you money specifically to certify your dog or provide a registration number. Money spent on an ESA letter strictly covers the cost of a consultation with a licensed mental health provider.
2. There is no consultation required.
ESA recommendations provided without an official evaluation are fake. To qualify for an emotional support animal, you must have a diagnosed condition that your ESA provides support for.
Your diagnosis and documentation must come from a licensed mental health professional who has evaluated your condition. Don’t trust any source that claims to provide ESA letters without a live consultation over phone or video, if not in person.
3. The letter doesn’t have enough details.
A legally valid ESA letter must include key information:
- Your full name
- Your mental health provider’s information
- A diagnosis of your mental illness/disability
- A statement recommending an ESA for support and alleviation of your symptoms
- The type of animal recommended as your ESA
A generic ESA document that doesn’t include these required details is fake and carries no legal power.
4. There is no official signature.
An ESA recommendation should be written on your LMHP’s official letterhead and contain their full name, license number, signature, and date. Without a signature from a licensed medical provider in your state, an ESA letter is invalid.
FAQs on emotional support animal certification/registration
Are you wondering about emotional support dog registration? Read on to get answers to some common questions about emotional support animal registration.
Is ESA certification the same as ESA registration?
Emotional support animal certification and ESA registration are the same in that they are not official ways of legitimizing your emotional support animal. There is no recognized emotional support animal registration or certification process. The only way to ensure legal protection for your emotional support dog is with an official ESA letter.
Is there an ESA registry?
No. Any website that claims to be an official “registry” for ESAs is likely a scam.
Can I fly with my emotional support animal?
It depends on the airline. In January 2021, the U.S. Department of Transportation ended its requirement that airlines accommodate emotional support animals. As such, only some airlines currently allow ESAs:
- Latam Airlines
- Air France
Air carriers may change their rules about ESAs at any time. Emotional support animal owners should check with their specific air carrier before flying.
Can emotional support animals go anywhere?
Under the Fair Housing Act, you have the right to keep your ESA with you where you live. The FHA doesn’t require private businesses, restaurants, or stores to accommodate an ESA. However, if you are renting or buying a place of residence that does not allow animals, an ESA letter would allow you to have one animal with you designed as your emotional support animal per letter. Additional animals are possible with proper documentation.
Can hotels charge for emotional support animals?
While the law prevents landlords from discriminating against tenants with ESAs, there are no such rules for lodging providers. Hotels may refuse to allow your ESA to stay with you or charge an extra fee for your emotional support animal. If you want to travel with your ESA, it’s best to find a pet-friendly establishment and call ahead of time to verify that your animal meets the hotel’s requirements.
Can you have more than one emotional support animal?
You may have more than one ESA as long as you have documentation for each one.
Are emotional support animals allowed in stores?
The legal protections that cover ESAs do not extend to stores, restaurants, and other private businesses. As such, stores have the right to exclude your emotional support animal, even if you have an official letter.
Do emotional support animals fly for free?
As of January 2021, the U.S. DOT does not require airlines to allow ESAs to fly for free. Each carrier may make its own rules about ESAs and associated fees. Before you travel, check with your airline to learn about its rules and fees for emotional support animals.
Do emotional support animals count towards a pet limit?
Under the Fair Housing Act, restrictions on pets and breeds don’t apply to ESAs. So a landlord cannot prohibit you from keeping your ESA even if there are rules against certain types of pets. For example, if your apartment allows each resident to have one cat, you may have a cat and also a dog, provided you have an ESA letter for your dog.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a landlord may restrict you from having ESAs if your request would “impose an undue financial and administrative burden on a housing provider.” For example, suppose you want to keep five Newfoundland dogs as ESAs in a studio apartment. In that case, the landlord could probably make a successful case that this arrangement would cause a substantial increase in insurance and operational costs.
Get an ESA letter for your dog
Emotional support animals can dramatically improve life for people with mental illness. If your dog provides comfort and support for your mental health issues, you can use Pettable to get an official letter from a mental health professional designating your dog as an emotional support animal. This documentation provides the legal backing that makes it easier to keep your emotional support dog with you no matter where you live.