Whether it’s a passenger fearful of flying, someone coping poorly with a past traumatic situation, or a student who gets nervous before taking tests, an increasing number of people are leaning on animals to provide comfort.
While such “emotional support animals” (ESAs) serve a genuine purpose for many people, they have stirred much controversy in recent years, notably on airplanes, such as when a woman on a cross-country flight was not at all happy when she had to sit next to a very large Dalmatian, which was on the owner’s lap. On another plane, a man was bitten on the face by a U.S. Marine’s emotional support dog. Then there was the time, in 2014, when Ivana Trump (the president’s first ex-wife) brought her miniature Yorkie into a high-end restaurant in New York City, showing a therapy animal card—but drawing complaints from other patrons.
Numerous websites will sell you everything from a service vest for the animal and a certification card to a note from a licensed psychologist to claim your animal as an ESA. Is all this legit—or just a pretense to be able to travel, eat out, shop, and sightsee with your pet, or live in housing that doesn’t allow animals? After all, ESAs come with perks beyond the comfort they provide, including that they get to fly in an airline cabin free of charge (as opposed to flying as checked baggage or cargo, for a fee). Here’s the lowdown on this growing animal movement.
What is an emotional support animal, and how is it different from a service or therapy animal?
Also called companion animals, ESAs provide comfort to people with emotional or psychological issues, which may include depression, anxiety, social phobias, or panic attacks, for example. In contrast, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a “service animal” typically refers to a dog that has been trained to do specific tasks for people with physical, psychiatric, or intellectual disabilities to help them in their day-to-day activities—such as a guide dog for the blind or a dog that signals when its owner is about to have a seizure. “Therapy animals” provide support for people affected by illness, disaster, or other stressors, such as in hospitals, nursing homes, and schools. Neither ESAs nor therapy animals are covered by ADA.
What animals can qualify as ESAs?
Though ESAs are typically dogs or cats, they can be any domestic animal, including not only rabbits, mice, ferrets, and guinea pigs, but also snakes, ducks, and potbellied pigs. The only stipulations are that the animal can’t be a health or safety threat to other people, and the owner must be able to keep it under control in public so it doesn’t become a nuisance. Also, the animal can’t be one that’s illegal to own, such as certain exotic or any wild animals.
What kind of training does an ESA require?
Unlike service dogs, ESAs don’t require any special training to do their job: The idea is that the mere presence of the animal helps someone with an emotional disability live independently and adapt to stressful situations. In fact, a current pet—even 15-year-old Fluffy—can be designated an ESA as long as a licensed mental health professional affirms that it provides therapeutic benefit.
How do you get an ESA?
Requirements for obtaining an ESA are fairly loosey-goosey. There are no national standards, and no registration or certification for the animal is needed. Basically, you just have to be diagnosed with a psychological condition that would benefit from having the animal. Airlines and property managers most likely will require a letter from a licensed mental health professional or medical doctor who can provide a diagnosis. It must be on letterhead and declare, among other things, the particular psychological condition you have and that the animal is important for your psychological well-being.
Can you have more than one ESA?
Yes. But again, a mental health professional would have to determine if that would be beneficial. And the documentation provided would have to note what each animal is contributing to the easing of symptoms.
Besides being good companions and adding joy to many people’s lives, pets can provide both physical and mental health benefits, including lower blood pressure and reduced stress levels.
Is it a scam?
The ease with which an “official prescription letter” can be obtained is of concern, since many websites simply provide one after you answer questions online and have a phone consultation with some type of registered therapist, for a fee ranging from about $80 to $150 (more if you need it right away, such as if you are flying the next day—or less if registration happens to be “on sale”). One website advertises the process as being “easy as 1-2-3” and, as is typical, has you register your animal and pay the fee before you are even given a diagnosis questionnaire and phone interview, with the money refunded if your diagnosis doesn’t qualify for an ESA—though we doubt that happens often. Another website describes its process as “hassle free.” Online companies make more money by asking if you want to upgrade your checkout cart with printed certificates and vests, patches, or other apparel for the animal.
To help combat fraud, several states, including Colorado, have passed bills making it a criminal offense (with large fines) to claim a pet is a service animal when it’s not—which would apply to ESAs on airlines since, a bit confusingly, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), which protects the rights of persons with disabilities on commercial airlines, considers ESAs as service animals. The ACAA applies, with some caveats, to both domestic airlines and foreign airlines flying to or from the U.S.
Can you take an ESA everywhere?
To many—but not all—places. If an apartment building, condo, or other public or privately-owned dwelling doesn’t allow pets, this policy must, with some exceptions, be waived for emotionally disabled people with ESAs under the Fair Housing Act (similar to how people in wheelchairs must be accommodated for their physical disabilities). Many colleges and universities now allow ESAs on campus and in campus housing. And, as noted above, commercial airlines must accommodate passengers flying with ESAs. But restaurants, stores, taxis, buses, beaches, and libraries, for example, are not required to allow them, as they must service dogs. In other places, such as public schools, ESAs are rarely permitted.
Regarding air travel, it’s best to contact the airline to verify what documentation is required and whether there are any restrictions (such as size) on the animal you can bring on board. Some airlines are favoring a ban on ESAs—or at least restricting the types of animals allowed.
Does an ESA need to be identified in any way to the public?
No. There is no regulation or law requiring any sort of vest, banner, patch, harness, or other accessory on ESAs. But such identification makes it clear to other people that the animal isn’t simply a pet, especially when boarding a plane.
Bottom line: Many people can benefit from the companionship of an emotional support animal, reducing or even eliminating the need to take medication, such as for anxiety or depression. But what constitutes an actual need is debatable, and undoubtedly there is plenty of fraud, with an untold number of well-adjusted, psychologically healthy people taking advantage of this practice to circumvent no-pet policies. Many people have a fear of flying or experience some degree of social anxiety, for example, but is that enough to justify having an ESA, which may cause distress for others around them, including those who are afraid of or allergic to animals? This debate will continue until more ESA regulations are put in place to protect the rights of people with psychological disabilities without treading on the rights of people around them.
If you think you have a legitimate need for an ESA, we recommend seeing a mental health professional who can evaluate you and help you find ways to cope with psychological issues—including possibly prescribing a companion animal.