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What is an Emotional Support Animal?


What is an emotional support animal and what species qualifies as one?

Animals make great companions. They love you unconditionally and give you nonjudgmental emotional support. They make you feel needed and give you a sense of purpose. Yet, for people with emotional distress and mental health conditions, their pet can be more than just a companion.

The animal can be crucial to their quality of life. Animals that provide emotional support and help individuals with mental health concerns deal with the challenges of daily life are called emotional support animals.

But what exactly is an emotional support animal? What do they do? How different are they from service animals?

Are they protected by federal and state laws? Which species can qualify as an emotional support animal?

Here’s everything you need to know about emotional support animals:

What is an Emotional Support Animal?

An emotional support animal (ESA) is an animal that offers companionship, comfort, and emotional support to an individual diagnosed with a mental health or psychiatric disability. A psychiatric disability is defined as a serious mental health condition that substantially limits a person’s major life activities. ESAs help their owners cope with the challenges presented by their conditions.

An emotional support animal is not considered a service animal or therapy animal, but under U.S. federal law, it is also not considered a pet. What’s more, an ESA is not required to go through any specific training or perform specific tasks related to its owner’s condition. Instead, it is their presence that provides their owner with solace and therapeutic benefit, relieving symptoms associated with their mental health conditions.

Emotional support Animals are most commonly prescribed for people with mental illnesses such as:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Personality disorder
  • Autism
  • Stress
  • Mood disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Neurocognitive disorders
  • Substance abuse problems
  • Psychotic conditions
  • Certain phobias and fears
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder

An assistance animal is only legally designated as an ESA when the owner gets a recommendation letter (ESA letter) from a licensed mental health professional—a therapist, psychiatrist, or psychologist.

What Animals Can Be Emotional Support Animals?

The great thing about emotional support animals is that they do not need to be specific species or breeds of animals to provide emotional support. As you probably know, cats and dogs are the most common ESAs because of the love and comfort they give their owners.

But beyond the dog and cat duo, other animals also have the ability to provide support and companionship.

These include:

  • Rabbits
  • Hedgehogs
  • Ferrets
  • Parrots
  • Fish
  • Lizards
  • Ducks
  • Other small, domesticated animals

Emotional support animals can come from any of the places where pets come from. They can be purchased from pet stores or breeders, adopted from shelters, or obtained from anywhere else.

When choosing an ESA, you want to take into account your personality, your emotional or mental health condition, and which animal will help you most. Your existing pet could also be legally designated as an ESA if you obtain a recommendation letter from your mental health provider.

Emotional Support Animals vs. Service Animals and Therapy Animals: What’s the Difference?

ESAs are often confused with service animals and therapy animals, but there are key differences between them.

A service animal can only be a dog (or the occasional miniature horse) that has been specially trained to work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. A service dog can be used for both physical and emotional disabilities. Service animals are allowed in public places and are permitted to travel by air free of charge.

An emotional support animal is also different from a psychiatric service dog (PSD). A PSD is individually trained to detect the onset of a psychiatric episode and assist its handler when something is going wrong.

Therapy animals, on the other hand, work in situations where stress levels are high. They are used in institutional or clinical settings to help individuals improve their physical, emotional, cognitive, and social functioning. Instead of helping one individual, therapy animals bring affection and comfort to many different people. They can be found in hospitals, hospices, schools, and mental health institutions.

Where Can You Take an Emotional Support Animal?

Animals whose sole function is to provide emotional support are not protected by the American Disabilities Act (ADA). This means that most public places, including restaurants and grocery stores, won’t allow you to bring an ESA. In contrast, the ADA provides legal protection for service animals. Therefore, public places are under a legal obligation to allow them to enter.

Emotional support animals are protected by the Fair Housing Act. This protects ESA owners from discrimination during housing-related activities. You can bring your ESA into any type of housing, like a college dorm or apartment.

Your housing provider must provide reasonable accommodations for your animal, even if they have a “no pets” rule. You cannot be charged any type of fee, like a pet deposit or pet rent, for having your emotional support animal. To exercise this right, however, you’re required to provide legitimate documentation to establish your animal as an ESA.

Things can get tricky when it comes to flying with your emotional support animal. Since 2021, emotional support animals are not considered service animals by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Because of this, most airlines view ESAs as pets and no longer have to accept them on board their aircraft. But since airline policies vary, you’ll need to check with your airline’s guidelines about ESAs.

Your Florida Emotional Support Animal Discrimination Attorney

Despite the prevalence of emotional support animals in society, many landlords and property managers continue to victimize current and potential tenants by refusing to allow them to rent property with their ESA or demanding exorbitant fees. ESA discrimination can have a harmful effect on someone with a serious mental health condition.

If you’ve received an eviction notice because your ESA is not allowed at your house or have been turned down for accommodation because of a “no pet” policy, you need The Goodwin Firm. Our attorneys can assist you with negotiating a resolution with your housing provider, filing a complaint with the Department of Housing, and fighting for the best results the law will allow.

Contact us today to schedule a legal initial consultation.

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