What is an Emotional Support Animal?

Everyone who’s owned a pet knows the range of benefits of having an animal isn’t simple to quantify. From companion to cuddle buddy to fitness partner, animals can enhance a variety of life’s activities. For some individuals with disabilities, these benefits are so great that owning an animal becomes critical to day-to-day activity by providing the comfort and emotional support it takes to maintain their quality of life. In this case, the animals are called Emotional support animals, also referred to as ESAs.

Emotional Support Dogs

The most common type of emotional support animal are dogs. Though it can be argued that all dogs offer emotional support to their owners, ESA dogs are specifically prescribed to an individual experiencing mental illness by a licensed mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist, therapist or psychologist. In this case, the professional has determined that the presence of the animal is integral to the mental well being of their patient.

Who Needs an Emotional Support Dog?

Emotional support dogs may be necessary for individuals suffering from mental illness. For example, these animals can help those with anxiety to relax or those with depression to feel uplift in spirit. They are reserved for individuals who experience a medically-deemed, fundamental increase to quality of life while the animal is around.

An ESA can be recommended to treat a variety of conditions. Most commonly:

  1. Anxiety
  2. Bipolar disorder
  3. Depression
  4. Fear/phobias
  5. Mood disorders
  6. Panic attaches
  7. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  8. Suicidal tendencies/thoughts

Research from The National Institute of Mental Health notes that more than 1 in every 4 adults in the U.S. will experience some form of mental disorder in their lifetime. If you are experiencing any of these types of conditions you are eligible to have an emotional support dog and are encouraged to consult with your healthcare professional for more information.

Benefits of Having and Emotional Support Dog

Studies have shown that having and emotional support animal can alleviate or even eliminate depression and anxiety in some patients. But how does this happen? One example is in patients with anxiety. Engrossing yourself in a consistent relationship with an animal can help divert a mind fixated on life problems and to do lists. Similarly, those with depression, who often note feelings of loneliness, find fellowship in their animal and form ties to moving forward with their lives. Dogs offer unconditional love and companionship that can relieve negative feelings about other aspects of life.

Depending on the severity or stage of an individual’s mental health, ESAs can be used in conjunction or in place of more invasive and costly medications and treatments. While taking care of an animal is a 15+ year commitment not without cost, it’s relatively affordable and effective compared to other options and can also be used in conjunction with other treatment without risk.

Emotional Support Dog Eligibility

All emotional support animals are required by law to be recommended directly by a doctor or licensed mental health professional. An individual is required to obtain an official letter from prescribing and emotional support dog to treat your condition. In certain situations, such as flying on a plane or renting with a new landlord, you may be asked to present this letter as proof of emotional support dog eligibility.

This letter is the only documentation and requirements needed to be eligible to have an emotional support dog. There is no emotional support animal registration application and you do not need to submit the letter to the government to certify your animal. However, you need to keep this note with you at all times to provide documentation when necessary.

How to Get an Emotional Support Dog Letter

If you have therapist or other licensed medical professional you see regularly, the first step in obtaining an emotional support dog note is making an appointment to see him/her to discuss it.

If for whatever reason your regular mental health professional is not willing to write you the letter, you are at liberty to consult another professional. There are many mental health professionals who specialize in this area and you may even be able to complete the process online. Be sure to consult a mental health professional who is approved by the U.S. Justice Department, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Transportation—all of which are agencies that protect emotionally disabled individuals and their animals.

Once a professional agrees to prescribe an emotional support dog for treatment he/she will need to provide a properly formatted letter stating:

  • You are a current patient receiving his/her care
  • You are being treated for a mental disability the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
  • This mental disability puts significant limitations on at least one major life activity
  • He/she prescribes an emotional support animal for treatment of said disability

The letter needs to be written on the professional’s letterhead and include the date as well as his/her license number, type of license and the state where it was issued.

How to Certify Your Emotional Support Animal

Emotional support dog registration is a fairly straightforward process. After obtaining your emotional support animal letter, visit the United States Dog registry website to order and Emotional Support Dog Kit. There are three kits available:

  • Basic Kit ($79)
  • Complete Kit ($159)
  • Deluxe Kit ($199)

Each kit comes with lifetime registration, a certificate, two ID cards and an emotional support dog tag. Other optional items include and additional ID tag, electronic copy of your certificate and ID card and an emotional support dog leash, collar, pouch and vest.

When ordering your kit to complete the emotional support dog certification, you’ll need to provide the following information:

  • Emotional support dog handler name
  • Emotional support dog name
  • Any add-ons you’d like to order
  • An optional photo of your emotional support dog for the ID cards

Can a landlord deny me because I have an emotional support animal?

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Fair Housing Act is one of the emotional support dog laws in place to protect owners and their animals. The Fair Housing Act protects individuals who are looking to rent, buy or secure financing for housing from discrimination based on color, race, nationality, sex, religion, children and disability.

The act specifically mentions ESAs within its provisions on assistance animals. Because of this act, landlords who put specific limitations or presence, size or breed of pets must wave these restrictions for emotional support animals. You cannot be denied housing or charged a pet fee or deposit because you have an emotional support dog. If you experience this kind of discrimination you are encouraged to report it.

Can an Emotional Support Dog Go on a Plane?

The Air Carrier Access Act is another one of the emotional support animal laws in place to protect owners and their animals. Under the law, emotional support dog handlers are allowed to have their animals with them in the cabin of an airplane. The airline is at liberty to request documentation stating the individual has a disability and has been prescribed the animal as treatment.

You are required to provide this documentation. It’s recommended to contact the airline prior to traveling with your emotional support animal to make sure you’re in compliance with what documentation they may need.

Does an Emotional Support Dog Need a Vest?

There is no legal requirement for owners to vest their emotional support dogs. However, putting an emotional support dog vest on your animal can be extremely helpful and is highly recommended.

Having your ESA dog wear a vest makes them easily identifiable as a assistance animal. This can be especially useful when flying with your companion. A vest indicates that your emotional support dog is more than just a pet and can ease interactions with airlines, landlords and others.

You may consider putting additional signage on your dogs vest to discourage strangers from interaction with him or her, which can inhibit your dog’s ability to assist you. If love from strangers becomes an issue, gentle reminders such as “working dog” or “please do not pet me” can mitigate these types of situations.

Best Dog Breeds for Emotional Support

Any breed of dog can be registered as an emotional support animal. However, if you do not currently own a pet and are looking to get one, there are certain breeds that are specifically suited to be ESAs. In general, the best emotional support dogs are calm, gentle, and cheerful, safe and secure, easy to train, have a high tolerance and are able to adapt to varying environments. Specifically, the following six dogs breeds make some of the best ESAs:

Golden Retriever

Golden Retrievers are potentially the best dog for alleviating anxiety or depression. They show love and loyalty in an unrivaled way, create an intense bond with their owners and are social, athletic and playful. Golden Retrievers are fairly large and energetic, so those living in smaller spaces need to work in extra walk time to keep them happy.

Cavalier King Charles Spaniel

Medium-sized and exceedingly cute, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels love cuddling and affection. They train well and are kid-friendly. Unfortunately, these dogs are also susceptible to heart issues, which simply means they need some extra care and attention to make sure their good health stays in tact.

Poodle

Poodles are incredibly smart and love spending time with their owners. They adapt well and love social interaction. However, although touted as one of the healthiest dog breeds, you should keep in mind that it can take a lot to keep those curls groomed to perfection.

Newfoundland

These dogs are large, friendly and love going for a swim. Like Spaniels, they love cuddling and affection. They are also highly intelligent and loyal.

Yorkshire Terrier

Fondly called Yorkys, these little dogs are as cute as they are spunky. They form strong bonds with their owners easily and are smart, trainable and easily portable since they are so small.

Great Dane

While they do make some of the best guard dogs, Great Danes are gentle in nature to those they love. Protective, loyal, patient and trustworthy, Great Danes mild manner will surprise you.

What is the Difference Between Emotional Support Animals and Other Assistance Animals?

An assistance animal encompasses any animal that helps an individual with a disability by working, providing assistance or performing tasks for that individual. There are three types of assistance animals—emotional support animals, service animals and therapy animals. By now, you know a lot about emotional support dogs, but how are they difference from the other types of service dogs?

Service Dogs

Service dogs, has been specially trained to perform specific jobs or tasks on behalf of their owner that relates directly to his/her disability. For example, a seeing eye dog trained to warn a person who is visually impaired of an imminent obstacle or a dog trained to warn a person with a hearing impairment of an alarm going off. Another type of service dog is a psychiatric service dog. These animals have received training to help people with their mental illness in a specific way, such as reminding an owner to take his/her medications, detect and ease psychiatric episodes and more.

The tasks a service dog is trained to perform must be ones the dog would not normally perform without training. Service dogs have more rights than ESAs, specifically, they are allowed to go anywhere the public goes.

Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs offer therapeutic benefits to individuals in places such as hospitals, nursing homes, schools and disaster areas. They have similar rights that ESAs have. The biggest difference between a therapy dog and emotional support dog is that therapy dogs are trained to socialize and interact with many people wherever they are, while ESAs are trained to assist their owner, while limiting interaction with other people.

Other Types of Emotional Support Animals

Service animals can only be dogs, but emotional support animals come in many species. Individuals may keep an emotional support cat, ferret or other pet. Generally, the pet is required to be relatively well behaved, potty trained and not cause a nuisance to others in order to qualify. They go through the same simple emotional support animal certification as dogs do.