by Chelsea Goldstein, Dysautonomia Information Network
Emotional service animals (ESAs) have been a hot topic of discussion lately. Most likely, you have heard about people who have registered pets as ESAs in order to waive pet fees at apartment complexes, or to fly with their furry friends for free. However, these animals can be invaluable to people with mental health conditions, who may get therapeutic benefit from their companionship. Knowing the difference between people who are abusing the classification and people who are benefiting is always tricky, but knowing the proper channels to get an ESA can ensure that you are protecting this important designation of animal for people who need it.
Read our article, It's Doggone Confusing: Understanding Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals (ESAs), to learn more about what ESAs are and how they may help you. If you find that an ESA may be a good fit for you, this article will tell you how to make that happen!
Finding a Good Match
You should understand your needs, and what qualities of an ESA may be a good match for you.
The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) states that, "Emotional support animals by their very nature, and without training, may relieve depression and anxiety, and/or help reduce stress-induced pain in persons with certain medical conditions affected by stress." Several research studies also indicate that positive interactions with an animal, such as petting, can reduce stress, alleviate loneliness, enhance social engagement, reduce pain, and improve depression (1).
If you are considering an ESA, you should ask yourself these questions: How exactly will an ESA support me? Will they comfort me on high pain days? Will their companionship lower my anxiety, especially when doing difficult tasks such as traveling? Will they alleviate my loneliness due to isolation caused by my dysautonomia?
Your answers to these questions will help you pinpoint your exact needs. This will also 1) help you figure out what qualities you need in an ESA, and 2) provide you with a legitimate explanation for your animal's ESA designation if it is ever challenged.
Another factor to consider is your ability to care for an animal. You want to make sure that you, or someone in your household, can provide for the animal's well-being, even on tough days (1).
The Animal’s Qualities
There are no legal requirements for the type, breed, or qualities of an ESA (1), so it is important that you assess your own needs to ensure that your ESA is a good fit for you. For example, you may want an animal has a calming presence if you live with anxiety (2), such as a lower energy dog, or one that is not too vocal. No matter what, it is important that you and your ESA have a strong connection and emotional bond (2).
HUD states, however, that housing complexes can deny ESAs if the animal is destructive or poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others (1). A direct threat must be based on the individual animal's behavior or history. In other words, housing complexes cannot deny an ESA on it's breed, or threatening behavior of other, similar animals.
While it may be tempting to get that cute puppy you saw on PetFinder as your new ESA, having any animal is a lifelong commitment. It is important that you take the time to understand your needs, fully and honestly, as well as take time to get to know any potential ESAs to ensure they can truly provide the appropriate support and companionship that will help you thrive with your specific conditions.
How to Get an Emotional Support Animal
So you've decided that an ESA will help you live a healthier, more sustainable life. Good work! The next step is figuring out where to get one and how to get your animal the ESA designation.
Where to Get an ESA
You can get an ESA any place you would get a pet. In fact, many people designate pets they already own as ESAs after experiencing tremendous benefit from the emotional support and companionship of their pet. This is absolutely a legitimate avenue of getting an ESA - you have already established the necessary bond with your pet, you know the animal's temperament, and you have experience caring for the pet. Just make sure that you seek to designate your animal as an ESA because they are actually providing you with necessary therapeutic benefits.
Otherwise, you can look into getting a new animal, and we recommend adoption. Your local animal shelter or rescue center could be a good place to start (2). Be sure to take your time getting to know any potential furry companions and ask a lot of questions, so you feel prepared for this major transition. Also consider what type of animal would be a good fit for you. Do you think you will have the strongest bond with a dog? Or, is a dog too much work given your health conditions? Try to answer these questions thoroughly, but keep an open mind. For example, you may consider yourself a "dog person," but find that you have an initial bond with a cat when you visit the shelter. Getting an animal is a personal decision, and it is important you take your time with the process, as well as trust your instincts.
The Process of Getting an ESA
To designate an ESA, an individual should get a letter from their mental health professional (psychiatrist, psychologist, licensed counselor, social worker, etc.) indicating that the animal provides emotional support that alleviates specific symptoms of the individual's conditions (3). The letter should include the name of the individual, that the individual has a mental health condition (though the specific condition does not need to be disclosed), and the recommendation that an ESA will benefit the person (1). It is also helpful to list the specific symptoms that the animal helps alleviate. This letter template is a great place to start.
Unlike service animals, ESA owners may be asked to show this letter to landlords or airlines, especially if fees are being waived or animals are not typically allowed on premise (3). This is why it is important to honestly discuss your needs with your mental health professional, as well as how the animal assists with your symptoms.
Beware that there are several online companies that sell ESA letters, or add you to ESA registries. While some of these companies do actually provide you with a mental health professional, many of them are scams. Note that there are also no required registries for ESAs. Since it is difficult to know which companies are legitimate, it is best to obtain a letter from your own trusted mental health professional.
- Chandler, C. (2015, April 20). Confirming the benefits of emotional support animals. Counseling Today. https://ct.counseling.org/2015/04/confirming-the-benefits-of-emotional-support-animals/
- How to get an emotional support animal. (2020, February). ESA Doctors. https://esadoctors.com/how-to-get-emotional-support-animal/#benefit-esa-support
- Wisch, R. (2019). FAQs on emotional support animals. Animal Legal & Historical Center. https://www.animallaw.info/article/faqs-emotional-support-animals
- ESA Sample Letter. http://www.bazelon.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/ESA-Sample-Letter.pdf
- National Organization on Disability. http://www.nod.org
- Fair Housing Act. https://www.hud.gov/program_offices/fair_housing_equal_opp/fair_housing_act_overview
- Air Carrier Access Act. https://www.transportation.gov/airconsumer/passengers-disabilities
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