Difference Between an Emotional Support Animal and a Service Dog
There is a common misconception that service dogs and emotional support animals (ESAs) are the same things, but this could not be farther from the truth. In reality, the way these dogs are trained and their overall purpose is very different.
People with disabilities often greatly benefit from having a service animal that can help them live a more independent life. The training for a service dog starts as a puppy and is targeted and specific. Service dogs are trained to help with tasks specific to a certain disability, such as alerting when a fainting spell or seizure may be coming. Specialized agencies are in charge of the proper training of service dogs and help match them up with disabled individuals who could benefit from having one. True service dogs are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act and are given public access rights to places that pets or even emotional support dogs are not allowed, such as grocery stores and restaurants.
All animals provide a sense of companionship, love, and affection to their owners. In some cases, people who struggle with mental illness actually rely on this sense of comfort and support. In this case, a mental health professional may write a letter prescribing a pet as an ESA or recommending the patient adopt a suitable animal. ESAs have some protections in regards to housing and travel but are typically not granted public access rights like service dogs are.
Who Can Obtain an Emotional Support Animal Letter?
People who are under the care of a mental health professional and have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder may obtain a letter prescribing an ESA. The range of mental health disorders that may qualify someone for an ESA is wide. In general, most mood and cognitive disorders may warrant a prescription for an ESA. Some specific mental illnesses include general anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, depression, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, postpartum depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and more.
If a mental health professional such as a therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist believes that a patient suffering from one of these illnesses requires the support of an ESA, they may write a prescription letter. In these instances, the professional typically believes that the patient experiences a significant increase in the quality of life and coping with their illness due to the presence of the animal. For these reasons, they believe that the animal is vital to the mental health of their patients and should, therefore, have more legal protections than a standard pet.
Federal Laws and Emotional Support Animals
There are two laws that protect the rights of ESAs, the Fair Housing Act and the Air Carrier Access Act. These laws are withheld at the federal level, which means that they are enforced uniformly across the nation and states are not allowed to ignore them.
The Fair Housing Act was designed to keep people from being discriminated against while they are searching for housing. Because of this statute, landlords may not deny ESAs from living on their properties regardless of any “no pet” policies that may exist. Additionally, they cannot charge any person an additional fee to have their ESA living with them. This act helps make sure that people who need their ESA cannot be denied housing due to their mental health status.
ESAs are also protected by the Air Carrier Access Act, which aims to prevent discrimination of disabled persons traveling by air. The statute requires that airlines make accommodations for people with ESAs and prevents them from charging any additional fees for their support animal to travel alongside them.
Finding safe, affordable housing that also allows pets can be incredibly difficult. This could cause huge issues for those who rely on an ESA for their mental well-being, which is where the Fair Housing Act comes into play. In order to submit an ESA to a landlord, you need to present a properly prescribed letter from a mental health professional. The letter will detail the mental health issue that warrants the ESA and any other information that may be important.
A landlord may not accept a letter written by a non mental health-focused medical professional (like a cardiologist) because they specialize in areas other than mental health.
Although, most documents can be purchased from online “registration” sites they are not authentic and not acceptable. Since there is no official documentation or registration process, the letter will be enough to grant your pet’s access as an ESA and waive any pet fees that would typically apply. Your landlord may ask for an updated letter every year stating that the ESA is still necessary.
Traveling with an animal can be very difficult, especially if it is large or is any species other than a cat or dog. Mountains of paperwork and sky-high fees are often a part of the process and the animal is often put through a stressful, uncomfortable situation to get to the final destination. People with ESAs are protected by the Air Carrier Access Act that allows them to travel with their ESA without facing discrimination. Some people who struggle with mental disorders cannot fly without the comfort of their ESA, so this act protects their right to travel as freely as those without concerns.
Airlines are not allowed to put people with ESAs in designated parts of the airplane (unless their animal is large enough to block a safety aisle) or charge fees for their passage. They can, however, ask for documentation and prior notice of the ESA before the flight. If you are going to be flying with your ESA, be sure to check your airline’s specific documentation requirements so your flight with your dog goes smoothly. Some airlines require additional documentation or longer amounts of notice before the flight, but they will all allow an ESA to fly with proper documentation.