Emotional support animals (also called ESA dogs) can do wonders for those of us who suffer from depression, PTSD, and other conditions.

Chances are, you’re here because you’ve heard about emotional support animals and want to know more. For many struggling with mental illness and physical pain, just leaving home, or even getting out of bed, is just too much. From PTSD to panic attacks, Generalized Anxiety Disorder to depression, people have many qualifying conditions that may benefit from an emotional support animal (ESA).

Essential jobs can be done by a canine companion, like dampening a teen’s suicidal thoughts and tendencies, but many species can be astonishingly supportive. The process to get a legally recognized support pet is pretty simple, and much cheaper than most “register your support animal” websites want you to think.

These miracle mates are not “Service Animals (SAs),” as covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), though they do have federal protections. There are some very significant differences. People who accidentally or fraudulently pass their pet off as an ESA or service animal can get into a lot of trouble, and cause a lot of difficulties for the entire community of people who rely on them. In California, it is a fraud crime to knowingly present an emotional support or Therapy animal as a service animal when they aren’t.

Emotional support animals don’t have the same federal legal protections either, but they are typically evaluated and registered through an agency according to DogTime.com. They can serve in hospitals, schools, assisted living homes, and clinics through programs like Paws on a Mission or Reading With Rover. 

So, while your landlord most likely can’t charge a pet deposit for someone who needs a companion to help control their Bipolar Disorder, you can’t and shouldn’t always expect the local grocery to let your ESA in (depending on state and local laws). Knowing the differences between the two classifications of support animals is really important.

You will find everything you need to know here to get it all done for as close to free as possible, along with what your ESA letter needs to say. So if you are wondering, “should I get an emotional support pet to ease my anxiety?“, here is some information to help you decide.

Emotional Support Animals Are Domestic Animals That Provide Comfort With Their Presence

“Emotional Support Animals” doesn’t just mean dog or cat. Any domesticated pet can be a life-altering friend, (so no bats or opossums) – depending on the laws in your area. Pigs, rabbits, guinea pigs, rats, pretty much any that we would usually think of as pets. If the species is legal to own where you live, it is manageable in public and does not create a nuisance in or around its home area, it can be an ESA. Some states do restrict breeds, like California which only allows canines and miniature horses per federal law – know your local statutes and rules.

The Difference Between Emotional Support Dogs and Service Animals

According to the United States Justice Department (DOJ), Civil Rights Division, the ADA, these ESAs are not the same as therapy pets and Service Animals.

  • Service dogs perform an essential service for someone who can’t, such as alerting a blind person to visual cues, or a deaf person to sounds.
  • Therapy animals are typically evaluated and registered through an agency according to DogTime.com. They can serve in hospitals, schools, and clinics through programs like Paws on a Mission or Reading With Rover. Therapy animals are like emotional support animals that serve the public.
  • Support animals do just that: be there and make the life of a person living with sensory processing disorders like autism a less toxic situation. They are not, however, automatically allowed into all public places; they just generally do not have the same training or tolerances as SAs.

According to the DOJ FAQ:

However, some State or local governments have laws that allow people to take emotional support animals into public places.  You may check with your State and local government agencies to find out about these laws.

Although emotional support dogs are also often called “therapy dogs,” these fall into a different category as well. As Please Don’t Pet Me explains, therapy dogs generally work in group settings like hospitals and nursing homes

There are some places where the two, emotional support and service, seem to overlap. Such as pets that respond with a trained behavior to calm an anxiety attack, before or during onset. Those dogs are taught a specific response that aids that person; they are considered Psychiatric Service Animals. These intuitive dogs sense a problem coming, like a veteran with PTSD sliding into a flashback or having nightmares, and they respond.

The DOJ has this to say about them, “If the dog has been trained to sense that an anxiety attack is about to happen and take a specific action to help avoid the attack or lessen its impact, that would qualify as a service animal.”

Don’t Give ESAs A Bad Rap: Be Responsible

When you enter a location, they can legally ask you two questions: 1) Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? 2) What work or task has the dog been trained to perform? You must tell the truth about your animal’s classification. Be it a support, therapy, or service ‘dog.” It is both Legally and ethically imperative.

If people abuse the title, then public sentiment could be turned against people. Like veterans who need these animals to help manage their PTSD symptoms. Emotional Support Animals can do many things. From supporting a teenager who needs an alternative to the widespread self-damaging behaviors out there, to helping an agoraphobic brave going to the mailbox.

A watchful comfort, ESAs can improve the quality of life for survivors of abusive relationships, letting them sleep at night. Help them calm because they know they know “Buck” has got their back. They are a life-saver for many, one that could be taken away – legally – by a public burnt out on “fakes.”

For example, it isn’t worth taking your young, untrained companion pig into the grocery store. Sure, you didn’t know Porkie would smell mushrooms and accidentally “root” over the entire display — he’s usually so well behaved! — but everyone who sees it is likely to be jaded against all these valuable animal heroes. Anyone else in your area who has a service animal will also suffer consequences. Not to mention, you have just stressed and endangered your own emotional support animal.

From Service Dog Central:

A dog that has not been taught how to act in situations like these is going to be understandably stressed and as a result many are terrified. A frightened dog may even bite someone which could result in the dog’s euthanasia. It is undeniably unfair to the animal to drag it into these situations without proper training.

Does My ESA Require ID or a Vest?

You must follow all of the local rules on vaccinations or registration for your animal, but emotional support animals are not required to wear a vest or a tag indicating their job. There are a lot of sites that will help you with an emotional support animal registration, which is not required by law in any way, but could help you navigate the “hows” of a new ESA. 

Though, it isn’t illegal to put your friend in an identifying garment that correctly IDs them; it may make going out easier on you. The places your clearly labeled pooch can go will not have to ask you any questions at all. So, while not required, it is recommended. If you choose to buy some form of identification for your ESA, don’t accidentally buy the one that says “SERVICE DOG,” that’s fraud.

There are many colors of vests, and some are strongly associated with certain types of service animals. There is, however, no law or rule assigning those colors.

Who Can Write the ESA Letter and What Conditions Qualify?

Anyone with a qualifying condition, who has a letter from a “Qualified Mental Health Professional (QMHP) who is licensed in any state or jurisdiction.” It is primarily up to your mental health professional to determine if your condition qualifies. Every issue we have mentioned here could be acceptable, there are others too. To legally call your animal one, you must have a mental health professional recommend it for you in a letter.

Here’s a partial list of possibly qualifying mental health and other conditions for having emotional support animals.

  • PTSD
  • Panic attacks,
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder
  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts and tendencies
  • Autism
  • depressive disorders
  • Agoraphobia, other phobias that an animal could alleviate
  • other conditions as diagnosed by a mental health professional

Yes, That Letter Gives You A Federal Right To Your ESA

That document means people don’t become homeless because they couldn’t find a place that allowed the big dog they can’t live without. Apartments or rental housing must make reasonable accommodations to you for your mental health support. Renters can’t be charged a deposit or “pet rent,” (depending on local laws and rules), but you can be charged for damages. You also can’t be bound by breed restrictions, so if your dog allergy means that a pig pal is best for your house, you have the freedom to choose that route. If you need a large breed, to feel safe, you can have that too.

You can take your animal with you in the cabin of an airplane. This gives people who could otherwise not travel unprecedented freedom. It is also a huge responsibility: Don’t, unless you can be absolutely confident it will be polite, quiet and well behaved. Just don’t.

Remember, any disturbance on that plane, should your dog react badly to the pressure in their ears and howl – or do the unthinkable, bite someone out of fear or pain and confusion – means you are dealing with the Air Marshalls. Not to mention making the national news, becoming a meme, and being shamed on late night television: your reputation will be affected for life.

But, when people do it right, it can be a beautiful thing.

With great freedom comes great responsibility. When you choose to adopt an ESA into your life, you must also recognize that there are many things that your counselor or therapist didn’t explain. If the benefits of having an ESA animal are worth the responsibilities, they can make yours or your loved ones or child’s life more abundant, less frightening and warmer.

How Do I Get My ESA Letter?

Talk to your doctor and mental health providers about the ways you feel that this will help you. If you are looking for an animal for your child or teen, make an appointment with your child to discuss the possible benefits to them. It’s worth it.

These disorders and illnesses are hard on individuals and families, but sometimes especially on caretakers. Watching a loved one suffer from the emotional consequences of living with a TBI can be gruelingly emotional. When the person you are watching suffer is your child, it can be particularly difficult for parents. Antidepressants have some seriously concerning side effects on youth and vulnerable patients, including suicide, which must be weighed against their benefits with your child’s doctor.

Don’t get this wrong, medications may greatly benefit many young adults, along with therapy, when under medical supervision: this article is offering no medical advice – that job is for professionals. But, adding an emotional support animal to the current interventions you and your child’s QMPH already have in place could make a positive impact on their life and help find a solution that works for your family.  

If they agree that you or your child could benefit from the services of an emotional support animal, they will write your letter.

Not every QMPH is an expert in writing these recommendations. Just like when you go to see your doctor, it is best to have a list of questions and information with you. Write down the reasons that you think that an ESA would benefit you, and the ways that would make your disability less of an obstacle to living a full life. Also, knowing what the letter needs to contain so that it will serve as a legal document to give your landlord or management company may keep you from having to make two appointments, in the long run.

The letter should state, according to the National Service Animal Registry:

  1. You are currently his/her patient
  2. Are under his/her care for the treatment of mental disability found in the DSM IV or V (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, version 4 or 5).
  3. Your disability substantially limits at least one major life activity
  4. He/she prescribes for you an emotional support animal as a necessary treatment for your mental health.

Emotional Support Animals: Champions Who Make Our Lives Better

For people suffering from disabling mental illness or sensory disorders, depression, anxiety or other barriers to living a happy life, these ESAs are the difference between actually living and just surviving.

If you or your child have a psychiatric, physical, or emotional/behavioral disorder that could be helped, the best time to make an appointment to talk to a professional is today. Remember to write down your questions and tell them that you feel an ESA will benefit your situation, if they agree, make sure the letter has all of the required information and is signed. You never know how much better you or your loved one’s life could be with the services of an ESA.

CC 2.0 Marvin Kuo/Flickr.