Emotional support animals can be an incredible support for people living with mental illnesses and emotional conditions. They can truly change the way you see the world! But how should you go about choosing the right one? Are there rules on what type of animal can become an emotional support animal? If you already have a pet, can that become your emotional support animal? We have all the answers for you here!
What Is an Emotional Support Animal?
Before we get started, let’s get clear on what exactly an emotional support animal is, and who can get one. An emotional support animal (often shortened ESA) is an assistance animal that helps people with mental illnesses or emotional disorders. Unlike service animals (like guide dogs), ESAs don’t need any specific training and don’t perform specific tasks. Rather, they help their owners by being a source of love, comfort, and support.
Emotional support animals can help people with a wide range of conditions, including anxiety, depression, PTSD, and bipolar disorder. Only people who have been diagnosed with a condition and are receiving treatment for it from a licensed mental health professional can get an ESA, but we’ll go into more detail on that below.
Legal Protections for ESAs and Their Owners
There are two main laws in place to protect emotional support animals. The Fair Housing Act (FHA) allows people with ESAs or service dogs to live with them in rented accommodation, even where pets are otherwise forbidden. This includes on-campus college accommodation.
The Air Carriers Access Act (ACAA) allows people traveling with their emotional support animal to bring it into the cabin with them on commercial flights for free, even those that do not allow animals.
Can Any Animal Be An Emotional Support Animal?
In theory, any domesticated animal can be an emotional support animal (so that rules out an emotional support lion, unfortunately). People get a great deal of comfort from their emotional support miniature horses, pot-bellied pigs, and even rabbits. However, let’s be clear here that there are some important exceptions to the rule.
Firstly, while any domesticated animal can be an ESA, most mental health professionals will be hesitant to prescribe one that is not a dog or cat without very clear evidence that the animal gives real benefit. Secondly, seeing as emotional support animals are not guaranteed entry to public places in the same way that service animals are, if you want to bring your emotional support animal with you to shops, restaurants, and other public places, you’ll need to find pet-friendly places. While finding dog-friendly places is rarely a challenge, finding a restaurant that can accommodate a miniature horse might not be so easy.
Finally, while emotional support animals are protected by law to be allowed onto flights, more and more airlines in the US are restricting this definition to only include dogs and cats. If you plan to travel regularly with your ESA, this is worth taking into account. Whatever kind of animal you choose for an emotional support animal, it must fit certain criteria, which we’ll go over in the next section.
What to Look for In An ESA
Considering how different and unique people are, it’s no surprise that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to choosing an emotional support animal. One person’s perfect ESA would definitely not suit the next person! Before choosing an ESA, you should think about your lifestyle, and what you’re hoping to get from the ESA. Do you travel often? Will you need to leave the animal home alone for long periods? Would you like to bring it to shops, bars, and restaurants with you? Try to be honest with yourself, and realistic with your expectations.
With all that in mind, there are a few criteria that all emotional support animals should meet:
Well-behaved: ESAs should always be under their owner’s control. This means no barking, running around, or jumping, and absolutely no aggressive behavior!
Clean and house trained: ESAs can be refused entry, even to airplanes and rented accommodation, if they are not properly housebroken, or if they are deemed unclean or give off a foul odor.
Able to remain calm, even under stress: It’s your ESA’s job to keep you calm. A very nervous animal that gets scared or skittery in new situations is likely to cause more stress than it prevents.
Have a bond with you: This is the most important point! You and your ESA should share a special bond, and the animal should help to alleviate the symptoms of your mental or emotional condition. Without this bond, the ESA is just a pet.
How to Get an Emotional Support Animal
Once you’ve decided what kind of emotional support animal to get, you’ll need to know how to get one. Don’t worry, it’s a pretty simple process. An emotional support animal must be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional who is treating you for a mental or emotional disorder. If the mental health professional thinks an ESA could help you, they will write an ESA letter.
An ESA letter is an official document that is valid for one year. The ESA letter, which can only be written by a medical doctor or a licensed mental health professional, states that you have been diagnosed with a mental health condition, and that the animal is part of your treatment.
A legitimate emotional support animal registration is the only way to prove that your animal is an emotional support animal. While there are legitimate services online that can help you to get an ESA letter by connecting you with a licensed mental health professional in your state, look out for any that will sell you a “no-questions-asked” ESA letter, or those that offer to “certify” or “register” your animal as an ESA. Those are all scams!
Adopt Don’t Shop! Shelter Animals Make Great ESAs
Not everyone decides to get a new animal as an ESA—for some people, the pet they already have can be the best emotional support animal for them. However, if you don’t already have a pet and you’re looking to get an ESA, let us recommend an animal shelter. These places are full of amazing pets with lots of love to give, who looking for a safe home.
What’s more, adopting an adult animal can often be less stressful than training a young puppy from scratch.