What Is an Emotional Support Dog?

Assistance Animals With No Special Training

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Emotional support animals (ESAs), or comfort animals, are often used as part of a treatment plan as therapy animals. They provide companionship, relieve loneliness, and sometimes help with depression, anxiety, and certain phobias.

But ESAs do not have special training to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities. Therefore, they are not considered service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

It is not enough to just refer to your cute pup or other animal as your ESA. You need to have documentation from a doctor or licensed mental health professional such as a therapist, psychologist, social worker, or psychiatrist.

An ESA is a type of assistance animal that is recognized as a "reasonable accommodation" for a person with a disability under the federal Fair Housing Act. Assistance animals are not considered pets, however, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the agency that oversees the Fair Housing Act and investigates claims of housing discrimination.

Potential Benefits of Emotional Support Animals

Theresa Chiechi / Verywell

Definition

The popularity of ESAs has grown. In 2011, the National Service Animal Registry, a for-profit company that sells official-looking vests and certificates for owners, had 2,400 service and ESAs in its registry. In 2020, the number was nearly 200,000.

While dogs remain the most common ESAs, cats have been growing in popularity.  Other ESAs include pigs, ducks, monkeys, guinea pigs, and even miniature horses.

Assistance animals must undergo an individualized assessment to determine whether the animal in question poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others. For example, a wild or exotic animal that poses a risk of attack or disease to other residents in a housing complex could be denied based on this assessment.

However, ESAs, comfort animals, and therapy dogs are not service animals under Title II and Title III of the ADA. While service dogs have been trained to perform specific tasks for individuals, and as such, are usually granted access to anywhere their owner goes, emotional support dogs do not require any specific training, although owners should make sure they’re well-trained in public.

ESA vs. Service Dog

Many people confuse emotional support dogs with service dogs but there is a distinction. Service dog, such as a guide dog for a person who is blind, refers to any dog that is 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.

Tasks performed by a service dog can include pulling a wheelchair, retrieving dropped items, alerting a person to a sound, reminding a person to take medication, or pressing an elevator button.

Even though some states have laws defining therapy animals, these animals are not limited to working with people with disabilities and therefore, are not covered by federal laws protecting the use of service animals.

Furthermore, ESAs are not automatically granted access to establishments like restaurants or malls such as service dogs are, although certain establishments may make an exception if you ask before visiting.

Health Benefits

A systematic literature review of 17 studies suggests that pets provide benefits to those with mental health conditions through the intensity of connectivity with their owners and the contribution they make to emotional support in times of crises together with their ability to help manage symptoms when they arise. However, further research is required to explore the nature and extent of this relationship.

Below is a list of mental health conditions that may benefit from having an emotional support dog:

Qualifications

In order to prove that an animal is an ESA, you will be asked to provide documentation from a licensed physician or mental health professional stating that the animal is an essential part of treatment for a
disability. A landlord or business owner may ask you to provide this documentation.

The licensed medical or mental health professional may require an examination or assessment prior to issuing the letter.

Legal Rights

According to the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, HUD considers “assistance animals,” which includes both ESAs and service animals, a “reasonable accommodation” for an individual seeking housing. That means that people who are able to furnish documentation explaining their need for an ESA cannot be turned away, even in housing with no pets policies. Also, landlords can’t charge for additional costs such as pet deposits.

If a person needs an ESA to help alleviate the symptoms of a disability, they must first make the request to his or her landlord. Housing providers may ask individuals who have disabilities that are not readily apparent or known to the provider to submit reliable documentation of a disability and their disability-related need for an assistance animal. While the tenant or owner does not need to disclose the disability, they will need to provide this documentation from a doctor or other health professional.

Many colleges and universities have now adopted policies for the use of assistance animals in housing. If you require an ESA, it’s best to check with a specific college or university before applying there.

The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) requires airlines to allow service animals and emotional support animals to accompany their handlers in the cabin of the aircraft. However, all airlines require documentation and, as of 2019, a number of airlines now require additional documentation filled out by a medical professional to accompany the doctor’s letter.

Some airlines may require additional documentation for ESAs. If you plan to travel by plane, check with the airline first about their requirements for ESAs.

Your emotional support animal does not have automatic access to every place a service dog may go. It is best to ask establishments such as restaurants, shops, or malls whether they are allowed or an exception can be made.

A Word From Verywell

Over the past decade, the popularity of ESAs has grown, with dogs being the most common ESA. A small number of studies have found that animals provide benefits to those with mental health conditions although further research is needed.

Almost any animal can be considered an ESA but the owner must obtain documentation from a licensed medical or mental health professional. ESAs are not considered service animals, however, as they do not require any special training, and there may be restrictions on where they are allowed.

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  1. Gibeault S. Everything you need to know about emotional service animals. American Kennel Club. October 2, 2019.

  2. Michigan State University College of Law-Animal Legal & Historical Center. FAQs on emotional support animals. Updated 2019.

  3. US Support Animals. The official US service animal & support animal (ESA) registry.

  4. RealESA Letters. Emotional support animal federal laws.

  5. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Frequently asked questions about service animals and the ADA. Updated July 20, 2015.

  6. Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) National Network. Service animals and emotional support animals. Updated November 2020.

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