Any pet owner can attest to the many positive mental and emotional impacts of taking care of an animal. However, for those who suffer from mental health conditions, these impacts are less convenient and more detrimental. Emotional support animal (ESA) registration is a formal way of solidifying the relationship that you and your pet have, taking their impact on your mental wellness to the next level by supporting it with physical documentation.
This process isn’t one that everyone is familiar with, however. In this article, we’ll be informing you on not only all of the steps that it takes to get your pet registered as an emotional support animal but also the full breadth of benefits that this registration can get you.
What Is An Emotional Support Animal?
As you might be able to surmise, emotional support animals are animals that provide emotional comfort and mental relief for their owners in a substantial way. Naturally, anyone could claim that their pet provides them with some form of emotional comfort, but where ESAs differ is their owners, who must be diagnosed by a qualified medical professional with a disabling mental health condition.
What Animals Can Be ESA’s?
Interestingly enough, there isn’t really a strict criteria on the kind of pet that you can make into an emotional support animal. Due to their general popularity, it is most likely to find cats and dogs among those registered as ESAs. However, that isn’t always the case! There are certainly those with more exotic or unorthodox pets that have been formally registered as ESAs. These include animals like:
- Rodents (Guinea Pigs, Hamsters, Rats)
Essentially, the only two qualifications are that they are indeed an animal, and they provide you with substantial amounts of emotional support.
Do ESAs Require Training?
There is no amount of formal training required in order for a pet to serve as an emotional support animal. That being said, there are some basic requirements that you should follow when bringing your ESA out in public, like ensuring that it is housebroken, non-aggressive, and easily controlled in large spaces. It’s also recommended that your animal be up-to-date on all of its vaccinations before entering public spaces.
How Emotional Support Animals Differ From Service Animals
While technically speaking ESAs do provide their owners with a service, this does not mean that they are service animals. Service animals are different than emotional support animals for a number of reasons, in the eyes of the public and in the eyes of the law. For starters, those who own service animals are granted specific accommodations through the American Disabilities Act (ADA).
The ADA defines service animals as such: “Any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” While the ADA cites dogs in particular, these guidelines also apply to (interestingly enough) miniature horses. Cats are not recognized service animals.
But, in essence, an animal that simply provides emotional comfort to its owner is not classified as a service animal. Service animals have the ability to accompany their owners anywhere necessary, whether that be an outlet mall or an airplane. This is because they have received rigorous, specialized training that makes them essential to the well-being of their owners at any given time.
Examples of this specialized training include:
- Alerting hearing-impaired owners of something urgent or alarming.
- Guiding blind or partially blind owners through public spaces.
- Alerting owners with seizure disorders before one occurs.
- Applying pressure on owners with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during panic attacks.
How Emotional Support Animals Differ From Psychiatric Support Dogs
Another kind of animal you might hear about is psychiatric support dogs (PSDs). This title might sound similar to that of ESAs, but their unique training makes them qualify as service dogs. Their role in providing comfort to their owners, who have qualifying mental illnesses, goes beyond cuddling and general support. Instead, they are trained to accomplish specific tasks for their owners.
These tasks can be anything from calming down someone with frequent panic attacks, guiding someone who enters a disoriented mental state, or reminding someone when to take their prescribed medication. Their role in providing mental comfort goes beyond simply “being around,” and instead extends to particular services.
Finding Out If You Qualify For An ESA
The first official step in the process of achieving emotional support animal registration for your pet is ensuring that you’re qualified. This means you must have a mental health condition that constitutes the requirement of an ESA. These include conditions like:
- Anxiety Disorders
- Bipolar Disorder
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
- Intense Phobias
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
If this is a condition you already have a diagnosis for, then receiving the ESA certification for your animal should be quite simple from then on. If you haven’t, but suspect you qualify, it would be in your best interest to contact a licensed mental health professional as soon as possible.
The Actual Emotional Support Animal Registration Process
Once you’ve received your diagnosis, the remainder of the registration process becomes quite simple. If your mental health professional determines that you would benefit from an ESA, they will write an ESA letter for you. This letter must be on the professional’s letterhead and include their license number and date of issue.
That is, for the most part, the entirety of the process. There is no official ESA registry in the United States, so that isn’t a concern. From then on, you simply have to re-receive this letter yearly. Be cautious of online services that offer to register your ESA for a fee. These registrations are not recognized by legal authorities and are invalid.
The Benefits of Having An ESA
So, now you not only understand what an emotional support animal is but also how you can get your pet registered. That means that the only thing left to discover is why this registration is so popular. After all, even if they aren’t service animals, there is an important distinction to be made between ESAs and regular pets! Here are some of the many benefits that come with signing up your pet to be an ESA.
Perhaps the most sought-after benefit in regards to having an emotional support animal is the housing benefits. If you’ve ever been apartment hunting, for instance, it’s incredibly common to see a listed annual or monthly fee for pet ownership. In other cases, pets are even entirely prohibited from staying in certain housing complexes and rental units. The Fair Housing Act (FHA) solves this problem for ESA owners.
This act essentially states that a landlord cannot discriminate against an owner of an ESA (or, of course, a service animal). Regardless of whether or not there is traditionally a pet fee, this animal can be kept on the rental property entirely free of charge. If you have an ESA and a landlord is demanding that you provide them with compensation regardless of your letter of proof, you may have grounds for legal action.
It should be noted that the FHA also accounts for landlords with pet “weight limits,” and for those who have a traditional “no pets” policy. The only grounds on which a landlord can refuse your ESA is if they can provide proof that your pet poses a threat to others in the building or produces substantial damage to the property.
Air Travel Benefits
The policy that airlines have regarding ESAs used to be quite murky, but as of the 2021 amendments to the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), things have become solidified. Though this act used to protect some ESA travel-related rights, these rights now only officially extend to service animals.
Although, there are some airlines that still offer boarding to ESAs. In other cases, they offer size-restricted options for ESAs. It’s important, before booking your trip, to do your own research on these requirements and restrictions for each airline.
Public Space Benefits
Unfortunately, though we’d all love to, there are some places that simply don’t allow pets. These include malls, restaurants, and most department stores. Though they have to follow ADA guidelines in regard to service animals, many don’t recognize ESAs as qualified for entry. However, if you have a conversation with the store or restaurant beforehand and demonstrate need for your pet to accompany you, they may use their own discretion and allow them to enter. This isn’t a guarantee by any means, but it is possible.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/Zbynek Pospisil
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