Emotional support animals (ESAs) have created a lot of controversy in recent years. Today there are record numbers of people wondering how to “register” and emotional support animal. People question the surging numbers of ESAs. Poor behavior of so-called ESAs has led to trouble for service dogs. In 2015, the AKC stepped forward with an official position on the Misuse of Service Dogs as a result of people claiming ESAs as service dogs. So what exactly is an ESA, and how do you go about registering your emotional support animal properly?
Official Emotional Support Animals
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an emotional support animal is “an animal that helps any emotional or psychological symptoms that a person might experience.” They do not require any training, and they are NOT recognized as service dogs. In fact, cats and rabbits (actually, any animal) can be an ESA. Dogs and miniature horses are the only animals legally recognized as service “dogs.” As such, the ADA does NOT provide protection for ESAs.
ESAs and the Law
So what legal rights do emotional support animals have? Despite what some people think, there are only two:
- The Fair Housing Act (FHA) provides owners with the power to keep their ESA, even if the property has a “No Pets” policy. They are exempt from any pet deposits.
- The Air Carriers Access Act (ACAA) allows owners to have their ESA with them in the cabin of a plane. They do not need to pay an additional fee to do so.
That’s it! ESAs do NOT have the right to enter restaurants, shops, or other public spaces. You also CAN’T take your ESA to work with you. They aren’t service dogs – they don’t receive training, and they don’t perform critical tasks. It’s an important difference.
However, because the ADA only requires two questions for service dogs, many people take advantage of the system. This abuse has led at least twelve states to crack down on “fake” service dogs. Owners that imply their ESA is a service dog could face fines of up to $1,000 and six months in jail! (California is VERY strict)
How to “Register” an Emotional Support Animal
It only takes one bad dog to wreck everyone’s image. Which is sad because emotional support animals are valuable companions. Not every ESA is a sham. People genuinely turn to their animals for solace during anxiety attacks, depressive fugues, and when coping with phobias. And a proper process IS required to take advantage of the FHA and ACAA.
First, you need to have a frank conversation with your licensed medical professional (NOT Dr. Google) about your medical condition. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders contains all recognized mental disabilities. Ideally, it helps if your doctor is specialized in animal therapy, but it isn’t necessary. Any of the following licensed professionals are acceptable:
- Clinical Social Worker
- Nurse Practitioner
- Physician Assistant
They MUST be licensed IN YOUR STATE. You can’t do an online search! While you will find people willing to provide you with a “diagnosis,” they may be not licensed to practice in your state. This is illegal! Also, you have a condition that requires regular counseling and follow-up. You can’t do that without an established relationship.
It’s hard admitting you have a mental disorder (believe me – I understand; I’ve battled depression and anxiety most of my life), but this is the first step to healing.
The ESA Letter
Now that you’ve spoken to your doctor and agreed an emotional support animal is a good idea, you can move forward to the “registration” part. Here’s where we debunk the myth. See, there’s no such thing as registering an emotional support animal! So be careful when asking your doctor how to “register” an emotional support animal. What you need, legally, is called an ESA letter.
The ESA letter is what you present to a landlord or when boarding a plane. The letter is good for ONE YEAR, and then you need to obtain a new one. (See why you need those follow-up visits?) Here is what every letter MUST include:
- The letterhead of the licensed professional
- Your full name
- A sentence establishing you have a disability as described in DSM of Mental Disorders
- Don’t worry, they DON’T have to say what the disability is
- They recommend an emotional support animal to help you cope with the symptoms of that disability
- The legal protections you have (just to help remind people)
- Their license number and expiration date (Hint: it’s annual – so, yeah, you have to get a new letter each year)
- Their signature and the date
- The expiration date of the letter
This letter is the ONLY “registration” you are required to have for your emotional support animal.
Despite what the internet will lead you to believe, there is no registry, certification, or license for ESAs. And, yes, there are TONS of scam sites out there – I think I found all of them (literally HUNDREDS). You also don’t need a vest, leash, or collar stating “ESA” for your pet (because you can’t take them out in public). The letter is ALL YOU NEED.
ESAs and Planes
That said, due to recent events, airlines are cracking down on emotional support animals. You have to present your ESA letter, but you also have to provide additional paperwork. Every airline is different, so call ahead and check their policy. For the most part, expect to need the following:
- A health report from your vet
- Current vaccine records (especially Rabies)
- A signed report from your vet regarding your ESA’s behavior
Many airlines will also observe your ESA before boarding. If they show aggression, jump on bystanders, or relieve themselves at the gate? Yeah, you’re not getting on the plane. So while ESAs aren’t required to have training, it’s strongly recommended that you enroll yours in a basic obedience class. You don’t want your emotional support animal to be the one with the bad rep.
One Final Reminder
There’s no such thing as an emotional support animal registration.
We weeded through dozens of sites claiming to certify your ESA for a fee. We found tons that promised to teleconference you with a “licensed professional” and provide a certificate within 48 hours. Some delivered a “registered” ESA after completing a simple questionnaire!
They’re all scams, and they’re hurting the ESA profession. States are doing their best to crackdown. In Virginia, where I live, there’s a law against sites that provide letters with no therapeutic relationship with the owner.
You should never have to pay a fee for ANY certification. Never sign up for a registry. You ONLY need that ESA letter, and you can ONLY obtain the letter as described above. If you aren’t following-up with your doctor regularly, then your “registration” isn’t legal.
Emotional support animals provide a loving and valuable service. People who have scammed the system and taken advantage of the fact there’s no oversight give ESAs a lousy image. If you have an ESA, you understand.
It’s time to fix the system and give ESAs the credit they deserve.