How to Adopt an Emotional Support Animal

Dec 29,2021

There are different types of assistance animals, who provide support to many disabled people worldwide and become an integral part of their lives. These animals should go through specialized training to be able to fulfill the wanted behavior and be efficient at their performance. However, based on their type and the work they perform, assistance animals may be divided into different groups.

In today’s article we will focus on the Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) in particular, we will let you know what the differences between ESAs and the other types of assistance animals are and will take a closer look at the ways you can adopt an ESA.

What Is an ESA?

An Emotional Support Animal can be considered any domestic animal (such as dogs, cats, rabbits, birds...etc.), that provide emotional support and comfort to a person who is coping with a psychiatric disability like anxiety, depression, PTSD...etc.  Through their companionship Emotional Support Animals provide a feeling of safety and well-being to their owner and mitigate their symptoms.

What Is the Difference between an ESA, a Service Dog and a Therapy Dog?

Although Emotional Support Animals go through training to learn basic obedience, behave properly in public, as well as overcome behavioral issues, these animals are not trained to perform specific tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability. This is the main difference between an ESA and a service animal.

Service animals are individually trained to perform specific tasks for the benefit of a person with a physical or mental disability and those tasks must be directly related to that disability. Service animals are considered medical equipment and their presence may be life-saving for their owner. Also, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) service animals can be only dogs. However, we need to note that some states like Arizona, recognize miniature horses as service animals as well.

Therapy dogs, on the other hand, are dogs who go through specialized training to behave properly and provide comfort in different types of facilities like hospitals, schools, nursing homes, libraries...etc. Similar to ESAs, Therapy dogs are not trained to perform specific tasks.

Both Emotional Support Animals and Therapy Dogs are not considered service animals and they may not be granted access to public premises. Whether their presence will be permitted or not, depends generally on the policy that the management runs.

We want to clarify that the terms “Emotional Support Animal” and “Psychiatric Service Dog” are not identical. Psychiatric Service Dogs (PSD) are a type of service animals and their access rights to the places their owner visits, must be respected.  

What Are the Benefits of Having an ESA?

Although Emotional Support Animals do not perform specific tasks, they can help a person cope with a mental disability on a daily basis by:

Alleviating the symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression, distract the person from negative thoughts and bad habits, mitigate the feeling of isolation, help the person release more endorphins and other feel-good hormones in the process of petting, grooming, walking and taking care of the animal.

The presence of an ESA can be very beneficial for people who are going through a treatment due to a certain health condition and need to feel safe and calm. If you decide to have an ESA, you can be confident that you will have a loyal friend who will be by your side if you feel lonely and isolated.

Here comes the question:

How to Adopt an ESA?

Pre-Screening Test

As a first step, you may want to consider taking a pre-screening test to check whether you will benefit from an ESA or not. This step is only recommended as it does not guarantee that you are eligible for an ESA. It can be used as a future reference only.

The next step is:

Consult a Medical Professional

You need to consult a psychiatrist/ licensed therapist, or a relevant medical professional, who can verify that you will benefit from an ESA based on your condition.

Get an ESA letter

This step is actually the most essential one. A medical professional needs to evaluate your mental health and sign a letter. A letter issued by a medical professional proves that you are eligible for an ESA and the presence of such an animal will mitigate your symptoms through the comfort and companionship they provide.  

Make Your Own Pet an ESA or Adopt a Pet

Once you receive such a letter you can make the pet you already have your Emotional Support Animal. If you do not own a pet, you can adopt one from a shelter or a rescue. There are many animals who are waiting for their human to adopt them and welcome them in their new family. Rescue animals often attach even more to their owners and provide them with unconditional love. However, it is recommended that you gather as much information as possible in regard to the animal’s pedigree. This may help you get a good idea about any genetic diseases that your paw friend may be predisposed to. Keeping track of their pet’s health condition should be a priority to all owners, especially if their paw friends are expected to provide comfort, companionship or be trained to perform specific tasks at some point in the future. Another thing to consider when contacting a shelter in regard to an animal adoption, is the temperament of your future pet. You may want to ensure that your future Emotional Support Animal be calm, balance-tempered and friendly. Since ESAs are expected to provide emotional support and comfort, you may want to avoid animals with severe behavioral issues, that may worsen your symptoms instead of mitigating them.

Do ESAs Need Special Training

No actual training is needed for an animal to be deemed an ESA. However, ESAs are expected to behave properly and be well-mannered in public. Hence, an ESA should know the fundamentals and be able to stay calm and fulfill basic commands like “sit”, “stay”, “come”.

Do You Need to Certify Your Emotional Support Animal Once You Receive an Esa Letter?

No, you are not obligated to certify or register your ESA. In order to verify that you have an ESA and not just a pet, you need to have a note from a psychiatrist or a relevant medical professional. If you think that you still will benefit from certification, you can enroll in a course or contact a trainer to ensure that your ESA will be obedient and well-mannered. Please remember, that ESAs are not trained to perform specific tasks, they provide comfort and companionship only.

Does Your ESA Have to Wear a Vest/Harness as Identification?

No, you are not required to put a vest or any kind of special assistance dog gear on your Emotional Support Animal. However, if you would like to notify the general public that your dog is an ESA, you can put a vest on him/her for identification purposes. That way passerby will be aware of the dog’s nature.

What Rights Do Emotional Support Animals Have?

Once you receive a letter issued by a medical professional, you may want to go visit a grocery store, restaurant, cinema, or any of your favorite public places accompanied by your ESA. Hence, you may wonder if your ESA will be granted access.

The Answer is No. Emotional Support Animals are not protected under ADA, as they do not perform specific tasks for the benefit of their owners, thus are not considered a type of medical equipment. Since ESAs are not considered service animals, they may be denied access to public premises.

Moreover, airlines changed their rules in the beginning of 2021, and they no longer accept Emotional Support Animals in the cabin. You can find more information about the new airline regulations here.

Although ESAs are not protected under ADA, they are still protected under the Fair Housing Act. According to the guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in January 2020, in regard to Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) in housing:

-ESAs may be granted access to almost every type of housing, even those with a “No Pets” policy;

-ESAs are not considered standard pets under Fair Housing rules, hence building policies that apply to pets do not apply to ESAs. Considering that, fees may not be charged and deposits may not be required in regard to the presence of an ESA;

-Landlords also are not allowed to impose breed or weight restrictions on ESAs.

Who Can Enforce the FHA?

Only the following two federal agencies- the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD), can enforce the FHA. According to the HUD a person who asks to allow an ESA can show a letter from a mental health provider / psychologist that explains the role of the animal in providing some assistance related to the person’s disability. Extensive medical records may not be required. For more information you can check the National Network- Information, Guidance and Training on the Americans with Disabilities Act, section: Assistance Animals Under the Fair Housing Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Air Carriers Access Act.

We always recommend that both sides assistance animals handlers and landlords try to have a constructive dialogue and arrange the matter in a friendly manner.