emotional support animal with owner

Unsplash/Joao Victor-Xavier

Quick notes:

  • The amount of emotional support animals in America has increased over the past few years.
  • Those who wish to get their animal designated as an emotional support animal must have a letter from a licensed mental health professional stating that the animal is needed.
  •  The DOT allows airlines to review the animal’s demeanor and behavior if you wish to fly with your emotional support animal.

No doubt, emotional support animals (ESAs) are showing up in all facets of American life, including airports, coffee shops, doctor’s appointments, and even the workplace.

The data is murky on the total number of U.S. support animals in 2019, but some statistics help paint a clearer picture:

That’s up from 709,000 pets, 481,000 comfort animals, and 227,000 service animals one year earlier.

  • Earlier data from the state of California shows a skyrocketing number of service animals in the state from 1999 to 2012.
  • 31% of U.S. colleges (from a survey of 248 schools) say they have received requests from students to bring ESAs on campus.

Pros and cons

Americans are turning to ESAs at a time when mental health issues, especially depression and anxiety, are skyrocketing across the nation.

ESA supporters say the documentation increasingly shows that emotional support animals provide comfort and stability to human owners across a wide range of mental health issues, including:

• Post-traumatic stress disorders

• Anxiety and panic disorders

• Fear of flying (aerophobia) and leaving the home (agoraphobia)

• Stressful scenarios

• Significant shyness in public

• Being blind or deaf

• Being incapacitated (like requiring a wheelchair)

Critics of emotional support animals (usually limited to aircraft-related issues) say ESAs aren’t hygienic enough for commercial travel, are prone to be unstable on longer flights, and have even physically assaulted airline passengers and members of the public at large, although those instances are rare, according to ESA advocates.

Private industries — especially airlines — don’t see it that way.

“In recent years, there has been an exponential increase of people claiming the need for emotional support animals in aircraft cabins,” says Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. “Flight Attendants and passengers have been bitten, attacked and inconvenienced by animals who are not properly trained to be in a confined public environment.”

Steps to take if you’re considering an ESA

If you’re mulling over the use of an emotional support animal, know going in what the rules and responsibilities are with ESAs and what you expect to get out of the experience.

Here’s a rundown:

Legitimizing an emotional support animal as “official” is easier than you might think. To qualify, the owner must get a letter from a licensed mental health professional that the support animal is needed to help alleviate certain medical conditions, although the need to name that condition isn’t necessary.

They’re not considered as pets. According to Uncle Sam (via the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA), so-called service animals aren’t considered as “pets” by regulators — they’re deemed as “working animals.”

The classification of ESAs is murkier, but by and large, the government deems service animals separately from emotional support animals, which really aren’t regulated at all by the federal government. In fact, there really is no specific designation for emotional support animals — just service animals.

“The laws that govern ‘service animals,’ ‘therapy animals,’ and ‘emotional support animals’ are all distinct,” notes David Reischer, Esq., attorney and chief executive officer at LegalAdvice.com. “The laws that govern each classification of assistance animals and also their handlers are unique to each class.”

As regards “emotional support animals,” there are two major legal issues that frequently arise, says Reischer.

1. Renting — As regards discriminating when renting to a person with an emotional support animal, the Fair Housing Act mandates that a landlord, owner, or building manager must make reasonable accommodations for an emotional support animal. “However, even a reasonable accommodation can be denied if it were to impose an undue financial on the housing provider,” he says.

2. Travel — Emotional support animals must have access to travel with a person, whether it is on an airplane, train, or even a coach bus. “When flying, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) mandates that an emotional support animal must be provided a seat,” Reischer adds. “Typically, a person needs to give advance notice to the airline to make sure the airline has received all the appropriate vaccination documents.”

Service animals must clear training hurdles, but ESAs don’t have to. The ACAA also notes that service and support animals must undergo specific training to be OK to travel with their owner in public. In other words, you can’t wave a wand and declare your family pet as an emotional support animal — at least not without a signed letter from a trained medical health professional.

The classification for training emotional support animals again is less clear. For example, the Fair Housing Act places few constraints on emotional support animals, even though there is no real designation for ESAs under federal law.

“Currently, there are no legal requirements for training an ESA, so you can acquire the animal via pet rescue, animal shelter, or breeder,” says Chaz Stevens, founder and director of happiness at ESAD, an animal support organization that works with therapists and patients on ESA issues. “That being said, recent DOT changes allow airlines to review the animal’s demeanor and behavior.”

There are physical size requirements for service animals. According to the U.S. government, service animals should weigh less than 100 lbs. in order to classify as ESAs. Again, there is no clear size statute for ESAs, although airlines usually subject ESAs to the government size statutes when granting a clearance to fly with an ESA aboard.

OK to travel. Service and support animals are, under federal law, able to travel with their human owners in public, including into private businesses (like a diner or coffee shop), clinics, and hospitals (but not in sterile areas like operating rooms), and on flights, buses, trains, and boats. Emotional support animals usually have the same travel rights, although there are no laws on emotional support animals as there are on service pets in this regard.

“For airline travel, a client must be currently under the care and treatment of a licensed (mental) health care provider,” says Stevens. “In that case, the animal is required for treatment during the flight and at the final destination, and the client has a mental health-related disability listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.”

What mistakes should you avoid in getting an ESA designation?

If you’re shopping on the internet, and most people do when looking for an ESA designation from a therapist or mental health professional, Stevens advises taking the following steps:

Avoid 95% of all vendors on the internet. Especially avoid those who peddle their wares using Google Pay Per Click advertising. These shops are springing up overnight.

Do they answer the phone and where are they physically located? “Many have no address listed or work out of a PO Box,” Stevens says.

How long have they been in business? The older and more experienced with ESA issues, the better, according to Stevens.

Is the therapist located in the same region/area as the client? That’s important, Stevens says. “Or, at worst, make sure the therapist is living and practicing within the client’s state,” he says.

Does the therapist specialize? “The therapist should have specialized training and experience in working with a human-animal bond in counseling,” Stevens says.

Check out the professional’s credentials. “Look at their Google and BBB reviews,” he advises.

Stevens does say the ESA market is full of ethically flexible vendors, clinicians, and clients. “But with $22, there’s a perception an ‘ESA letter’ is something that you get from the Petco’s aisle, and that shouldn’t be the case,” Stevens adds.

Stevens says he was able to qualify Harry Henderson, his own emotional support Bigfoot. “Now, with an identification card in hand and the seller’s promises, my ESA Sasquatch and I can finally move into our 350 sq. foot studio apartment.”

An owner’s advice

Actual ESA owners say the real-life experience with the animals is different than what many say.

“We have had two emotional support animals, a guinea pig and now a corgi,” says Gina Morris, founder of Step to Self, a motherhood and self-help blog. “They really helped my daughter who has depression and anxiety.”

That said, Morris warns ESA owners to avoid getting too attached to their animal.

“Make sure the ESA isn’t the only thing keeping you going, because most animals have shorter lifespans than humans so it can be a really big problem when an ESA dies,” she says. “You need to prepare yourself for this and have a game plan.”

Additionally, even though the animal is there for owners, ESAs also need to be cared for properly.

“This is — or should be — a top consideration when choosing between different ESAs,” Morris says. “If you’re a person who can barely go outside, don’t think a dog who needs regular exercise is going to change everything overnight. Pick one whose needs can fit into your lifestyle and make sure it is a two-way relationship.”

Also, people who need ESAs often have limitations on what they can give to an animal, so other family members may end up needing to help care for it. “Make sure all are aware and onboard before it becomes a problem,” she says.

A deeper dive — Related reading on the 101:

If you’ve been thinking about getting a pet, whether it’s to be an ESA or not, read this first.

Dogs make great emotional support animals, and they’re especially cute and happy when they first get adopted!

Some interesting animals have been designated as ESAs. Check out these bizarre pets owned by historical figures!