The benefits of animal-human interaction have been recognized for a long time. Animals can promote noticeable improvements in human mood, social connectedness and physical health. Recently, animals have been recognized as sources of emotional support, both in the general population and among people who may be experiencing a mental health condition. As a result, the popularity of emotional support animals and animal-assisted therapy has grown substantially.

What Are Emotional Support Animals?

Emotional support animals are often referred to as companion animals. They serve as a source of reassurance, security and affection for their owners. Emotional support animals (ESAs) are used for therapeutic benefit and can help people who are experiencing stress, anxiety or depression. ESAs are often used in combination with other types of therapy and certified ESAs may accompany their owners to school, work, travel or social situations.

Emotional Support Animal vs. Service Animal

Although considered similar in some ways, there are key differences between an ESA and a service animal in their training and role. Typically, service animals assist people who have physical or mental disabilities. While they may provide some emotional reassurance, a service animal’s primary job is to assist with or complete certain tasks that a person with a disability may have difficulty doing themselves. In contrast, emotional support animals offer emotional support for their owners but are not trained to do work or perform other tasks.

How to Get an Emotional Support Animal

The process of getting an ESA requires medical recommendation by a health professional, who can provide an emotional support animal letter as evidence of their recommendation. An ESA letter is required to prove that a person is under the care of a health professional and has been diagnosed with a condition that would benefit from an emotional support animal. For proof of the legitimacy of the letter, it’s helpful to have the letter on a doctor’s letterhead and to include their contact information.

Registering Your Emotional Support Animal

There is no official registry or registration process for ESAs. However, there are several options available online for the registration of an ESA, which provide tags and a certificate for an animal. The owner must provide basic information about the animal (name, breed, etc.) to complete the process. However, it is important to know that registration is not mandatory and does not verify an ESA on its own.

Even if an ESA has been registered, the animal is legally required to have a medical letter of support, provided by a therapist or doctor. Obtaining this letter can be a costly process for some people, and owners may be able to get a medical letter online through a secure and detailed application process. The application is evaluated by a medical professional to assess whether a letter of medical recommendation can be issued.

ESA Laws & Requirements

Under the Fair Housing Amendments Act and the Air Carrier Access Act, individuals with a medically certified letter recommending an ESA are entitled to have their ESA with them in their day-to-day life. Specifically, these ESA laws ensure that people with ESAs cannot be denied housing or asked to leave their current housing, regardless of no-pet policies.

People with ESAs also have the legal right to fly with their support animals in the cabin of a plane at no extra cost. Importantly, ESA owners are required to carry their medical support letter as evidence, and in some cases, ESAs are required to wear a vest or tag for identification.

Emotional Support Animal FAQs

To learn more about emotional support animals, check out the following commonly asked questions and answers about ESAs.

  • Do emotional support animals require special training?

    ESAs are not required to be trained by a professional. However, ESAs should be trained to behave appropriately in public.

  • Does my ESA need to wear a vest to accompany me?

    A vest is not required in all situations. However, some airlines or businesses will request that an animal wears a vest or has a form of identification when traveling. In general, a vest may help alert other people that an animal is there for emotional support.

  • Can my ESA travel with me?

    Yes, traveling with an ESA is permitted. However, you will usually need to show your medical recommendation letter. Additionally, ESAs are permitted to travel by air under the Air Carrier Access Act and can stay in the cabin of the plane at no extra cost.

  • Can my landlord deny an emotional support animal?

    No, ESAs are protected under the Fair Housing Amendments Act and cannot be denied by a landlord. Tenants also cannot be asked to leave their housing if they have a medically recommended ESA.

  • Can my landlord charge for my ESA?

    No, the Fair Housing Amendments Act also states that a landlord cannot charge a tenant for an ESA.

  • What animals can be emotional support animals?

    Although many animals, including horses, cats or birds, can serve as ESAs, emotional support dogs are the most common ESAs. As dogs are generally common in communities, there is often high acceptability of dogs as ESAs given their familiarity and sociability.

Benefits of an Emotional Support Animal

There are many benefits of emotional support animals. They can have an impact on both physiology and mood. For example, ESAs can:

  • Lower blood pressure and other markers associated with arousal and stress response
  • Reduce feelings of stress, allowing a person to better deal with the situation at hand
  • Serve as social icebreakers
  • Foster social connectedness, which can reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation
  • Promote companionship and reassurance, which reduce anxiety and panic

These benefits may be even more significant if there is a personal attachment to the animal, or an ESA is complemented by other forms of therapy.

Mental Health Conditions Helped by an ESA

ESAs can be used to assist individuals dealing with mental health conditions, such as:

Specifically, ESAs help address feelings of tension, anxiety and low mood that are common symptoms of mental health conditions. If you are affected by any of these symptoms and are wondering if you qualify for an emotional support animal, speak to your doctor.

If you are also struggling with a substance use disorder, please contact us at The Recovery Village, for more information on how we can help you regain control of your life.