What Is An Emotional Support Animal?
An emotional support animal (ESA), or therapy animal, is an animal companion that offers some type of emotional therapy to individuals with mental health concerns or disabilities. These animal companions come in all shapes and sizes, and range from dogs (most common), cats, miniature horses, to even pigs, ducks, monkeys, and peacocks. ESAs do not require formal training and are not required under federal law to wear a tag, harness, or clothing that indicates they are support animals.
Why would someone consider choosing an emotional support animal? Research continually finds that animal companions provide valuable psychological health benefits, by fostering emotional connectivity and social interaction during times of stress, anxiety, or loneliness. In a 2020 study, researchers found that 99.29% of individuals with an ESA gained heightened feelings of confidence and were compelled to participate in more physical activity.
Other benefits include, but are not limited to:
- Reduced Anxiety
- Trauma Support
- Improved Physical Health
Emotional Support Animals vs. Service Animals
Under Title II and Title III of the ADA, service animals, or assistance dogs, are defined as any dog that is trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability. This specialized training can take the form of guiding, hearing, medical alerting, mobility, autism service, or psychiatric service, and should help their handlers with essential tasks that they wouldn’t be able to do on their own otherwise.
Service animals can include:
- Guide Dogs for the visually impaired or blind.
- Hearing Dog for the deaf or hard of hearing.
- Seizure Response Dogs for persons who suffer from seizures.
- Psychiatric Service Dogs for individuals who suffer from serious anxiety, psychiatric episodes, or panic attacks.
Emotional support animals solely provide their presence to provide therapeutic benefit. They do not have public access rights under the ADA (minus air travel), may only visit certain restaurants or dining establishments that allow pets.
In January of 2020, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released revisions to the Fair Housing Act – a two-tier process to evaluate requests for service or assistance animals. The first tier considers requests for ESAs as defined by the ADA, and the second tier considers other animals that are not service animals.
Note that this guidance is simply that. Landlords must still provide reasonable accommodation for disabled persons and cannot charge extra fees or deposits for having an emotional support animal. They can, however, charge tenants for damage caused by ESAs.
An emotional support animal letter, otherwise known as an ESA letter, qualifies handlers to be accompanied by their support animals in rental housing and some airlines. This letter must be written by a psychiatrist, psychologist, or qualified medical health professional, and under the US Department of Transportation guidelines for air travel, this doctor must be currently providing treatment to the handler.
Airlines that accommodate ESAs are not obligated to accept ESA letters over one year old and may require a professional letterhead from their licensed medical health professional. In some states, falsifying ESA letters is considered a misdemeanor.
On December 2, 2020, the US Department of Transportation announced updates to the Air Carrier Access Act, no longer requiring airlines to accept ESAs. Under this new legislation, many airlines have decided to treat ESAs as pets and can charge fees for pet transportation. Despite this legal win for airlines, mental health advocates continue to lobby for new legal action to protect the rights of people with disabilities.
Is an ESA Right For Me?
Not everyone with a mental or physical disability will need or want an emotional support animal, though those who long for consistent companionship may benefit from their comfort and positive presence. If you think having an ESA may be beneficial to you, or have further questions, contact a life care planning expert at CRC at email@example.com.