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What Is An Emotional Support Animal?

You’ve probably heard the term “emotional support animal” (ESA) even if you haven’t tried to get one yourself. The phrase made headlines recently as airlines began to cut allowances for emotional support for animals on airplanes, and as problems with abuse of the ESA system were identified.

But emotionally supported animals, be they dogs, cats, or less common species, aren’t really that controversial. In fact, they offer countless benefits to those who need them and can provide people with the communication and support they need to improve their quality of life.

If you are a parent of a pet yourself, you know that the bond between humans and their animals is very strong, and that animals have a unique way to calm and heal their people in times of need. For some people, their pets provide stability and companionship in light of serious mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, personality disorders, and personality disorders. In these scenarios, it can be helpful for the pet to qualify as an emotional support animal, which gives it a slightly more empowering pet than your typical pet.

Emotional support animals versus service animals and therapy animals

To understand what an emotional support animal is, you first need to understand what it is not. An emotional support animal is not a service animal, which means that it is not trained to perform a specific task or job. Because of this, it does not have the same legal permits as a service animal, for example allowed in all pet-free environments.

An emotionally supported animal is also not a therapeutic animal, that is, an animal that is specially trained to provide emotional and / or psychological support to people in need. Typically, therapy animals are taken to hospitals, schools, nursing homes and other care settings. They are also used to help people after a traumatic event.

Rather than performing a specific, trained task, an emotionally supported animal provides its human with a strong and comforting emotional bond. And because they do not do “work” like a service or therapy animal, they have fewer legal conditions.

Legal rights to emotional support for animals

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides a wide range of rights for service animals because they are necessary for the physical and / or mental abilities of their handlers and because they receive consistent training. Since ESAs do not need to undergo professional training to support their people, they do not have the same rights under the ADA.

The law, however, protects the human right to emotional support for the animal. And some laws extend these rights in public places. For example, under the Fair Housing Amendment Act (FHAA), ESA holders are allowed to keep their animals with them in their housing unit. And the Airline Carrier Access Act (ACAA) allows people to take their ESA with them on air travel, even if the animal cannot fit in the trunk under the seat.

While these protections exist for the ESA, there are limitations due to the lack of support from the ADA. There are still situations when a landlord denies your support animal, or, for example, some airlines may only allow ESA dogs or cats, and not other types of emotional support for animals.

How to get emotional support from an animal

In order for your pet to be recognized as an emotional support animal under the law, you must receive a letter from your mental health provider stating a “prescription” for an ESA. Service providers can prescribe ESAs for a variety of disorders, including depression, anxiety, learning disabilities, ADD / ADHD, cognitive disorders, and more.

This letter should:

  • Be written by the mental health professional you are currently a patient
  • Indicate the disability for which you need an ESA
  • Provide details of how your life or activity is limited by your disorder
  • Explain how ESA will help your treatment
  • No more than a year when you would like to submit it, for example, for airline tickets or accommodation
  • If you have a letter and are still being denied your ESA in your housing unit, please send a written request to your landlord and attach a copy of your letter. If that doesn’t work, you can file a complaint with the US Department of Housing.

If you think an emotionally supported animal will be beneficial to your health, talk to a psychiatrist. The ESA can be an animal that you already share your life with, or you can go out and adopt. ESAs do not need to be professionally trained, but still need to have basic obedience and demeanor in order for them to behave in public. There are no restrictions on the types of animals that can qualify as ESA, so if you are not ready for a dog or cat, consider a rabbit, bird, lizard, or other type of emotionally supported animal.

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