By Carina Hsieh and Elizabeth Narins
It’s no secret that animals can lift your spirits — aside from y’know, personal experience, studies even show this. But if you have a qualifying mental or emotional disorder, the therapeutic bennies of having a qualified fur baby by your side can help even more.
Of course, plain old pets aren’t always permitted in certain communities, workplaces, or on planes, so you’ll have to make sure you qualify your emotional support animal, also called comfort animals, assistance animals, or ESA, to accompany you wherever you may want to go together.
Here are some tips to help you decide on how to get a qualifying animal (or see if an animal you already own qualifies) and how to make sure your ESA gets the special treatment it deserves.
1. Understand the difference between service animals and emotional support animals.
Service animals must undergo training for a specific disability and are welcome at any and all public locations, while an ESA is not, explains Prairie Conlon, Clinical Director of CertaPet. Service animals are specially trained in areas such as picking items up for someone in a wheelchair or alerting someone with hearing loss when someone is approaching them from behind, according to the ADA. With a trained service dog, people may only ask two questions, per the ADA.
(1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform? Staff are not allowed to request any documentation for the dog, require that the dog demonstrate its task, or inquire about the nature of the person’s disability.
On the other hand, an emotional support animal is meant to “provide comfort and calming to their handler,” as Nicole Ellis, certified dog trainer and pet expert with Rover, explains. These animals do not perform a task and are not covered under the ADA and are not allowed public access to restaurants and stores the same way service animals are.
Please also keep in mind, it’s a felony to fake a dog as a service dog and punishable by a fine and jail time in some states, according to Ellis. Not to mention, it’s just kinda shitty. There are more and more pet-friendly places opening up if you want to take your fur baby with you out and about that don’t involve violating important protections for differently abled folx.
2. Know that there are no official licensing or governing places to get an official “certificate” to have an emotional support animal.
The best documentation here usually comes from a doctor (see #3), so beware of the many for-profit sites that come up on the first Google result. “They are all scams,” explains Abby Volin, of Opening Doors LLC, a legal and consulting firm specializing in animal accommodation laws. “There are no legally meaningful/recognizable certifications or registration lists for service or assistance animals (including ESAs). Anyone who says otherwise is selling you something you don’t need.” While this is bad news for me and the nice laminated card I got for $80 for my pup, it’s good for you to know.
Volin also points to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s own info on assistance animals, where on page 11 of the PDF, you’ll see that the online sites selling certificates are usually not sufficient evidence for an assistance animal, whereas documentation from a licensed health professional is usually safer. Volin also points to the ADA’s site where question 17 backs up the fact that sites selling certificates “do not convey any rights under the ADA.”
3. See your mental healthcare provider or physician for an official diagnosis.
If you have severe anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or another emotional or mental illness, you may benefit from an emotional support animal that you can, by law, bring to places where pets normally are prohibited (like on planes or in your home, if you’re a renter), according to information from The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, a legal-advocacy organization representing people with mental disabilities, based in Washington D.C. Without a diagnosis, you can still get a pet and enjoy its benefits — you just may not be able to bring Fido or Fluffy everywhere, like on your next flight, or cohabitate if it’s against your landlord’s rules.
4. Request an emotional support animal prescription.
Although you don’t legally need to register your emotional support pet (despite websites that market this service), an emotional support animal letter written by your mental healthcare provider can help you circumnavigate some rules and restrictions in place for regular pet owners: It serves as proof you actually need your animal nearby.
This letter should state you are their patient, you have a disability (no details needed), and that the animal in question helps you cope. Make sure they include their letterhead, license number, contact information, and the date, and obtain a new copy of this letter every year to keep it current if you plan to fly with your ESA, as per the ADA.
5. If you live or work somewhere where pets or prohibited, request an exception in writing.
Although emotional support animals aren’t considered service animals, which are permitted to accompany their owners pretty much everywhere, as per the Americans With Disabilities Act, they’re still exempt from certain housing and employment rules that prohibit pets. As for what to get for your housing regulations, Volin says that verification letters for housing shouldn’t reveal a diagnosis, but should explain the functional limitations and how the animal alleviates a symptom or effect of the disability.
Volin also adds that housing providers can not ask the doctors who write your letters anything more than 1.) if they wrote the letter, 2.) if that’s their signature. Anything beyond that can violate privacy laws.
6. Pick a pet.
Per HUD rules, when it comes to an emotional support animal, only animals that are common household pets are allowed, per HUD rules, Volin explains.
If you don’t adopt from a local shelter, and opt to visit a pet store instead, prepare to dip into your own pockets, since standard insurance providers generally do not cover emotional support animals.