What Is An Emotional Support Animal?

In the world of assistance animals, it’s hard to find a topic more controversial than that of emotional support animals. Similar to service dogs but different in a number of important ways, emotional support animals, or ESAs, offer companionship and support through their presence to their handler/owners. In order for an animal to be considered an ESA, his owner must have a verifiable diagnosis as being emotionally disturbed and in need of his presence and company for health and well-being. 

There are a number of myths about emotional support animals, and persistent misunderstandings have habitually made news headlines as apparent support animals publicly misbehave. Knowing the differences between a personal pet, a service animal, and an emotional support animal is crucial for overall legitimacy as well as correctly exercising animal-handling rights in housing, shopping, frequenting businesses, and traveling. This article will answer the question what is an emotional support animal and how do they differ from your standard household pet. 

Debunking Fact From Fiction: Essential Information About ESAs

According to the American Kennel Club, in order to be legally considered as an emotional support animal (ESA), the pet in question must first be “prescribed by a licensed mental health professional to a person with a disabling mental illness.” For example, either a psychiatrist, psychologist or a therapist must determine if the presence of an animal will benefit the mental health of their patients. In some cases, research has shown that owning a pet may not only ease an individual’s anxiety, but provide focus in one’s life.  This section will explore common misconceptions about ESA ownership along with helpful facts and information:

Myth # 1: Emotional support animals are the same as service animals.

The truth: Service animals are regulated and protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, known as the ADA. To be considered a service animal, the animal in question must have gone through rigorous service dog training to perform a specific act or acts of service to assist with a specific disability. Examples of service animals may include a dog trained to push or pull a mobility device like a wheelchair, or one trained to retrieve a medicine bottle or phone for a handler that is physically unable to do so. In contrast, an emotional support animal is not trained in a specific act of service, merely to be a well-behaved pet that remains with their owner/handler to provide comfort by their presence. 

Myth # 2: Businesses, housing, and transportation methods are required to allow ESAs to accompany their owner/handler.

The truth: A business or organization is only allowed to ask two questions, by law, of anyone purporting to be paired with a service animal. They may ask if the animal is trained to help with a specific disability (though they may not ask which one), and they can also ask what specific duty or duties the animal has been trained to perform. ESAs, by definition, are not considered service animals and so are not afforded the two-questions-only level of protection. An ESA handler may be asked to provide documentation of their ESA prescription, which can only be issued by their mental health professional, much the way a medication would be.

If an ESA handler does not have supporting documentation or their animal exhibits signs of ill behavior, such as urinating or defecating in inappropriate places, making a lot of unnecessary noise, actively disturbing other patrons, or acting aggressive or uncontrolled, they can be asked to leave. A handler is required to have full control over their ESA at all times, which means a physically-attached leash, lead, or harness. By contrast, for service animals, voice control is acceptable in lieu of a lead, as service animals are often paired with handlers that have physical disabilities that may restrict them from holding a leash. 

ADA-governed service animals have nationwide protections in terms of where they can travel, stay, and enter with their handlers. ESAs have a more patchwork system of rights, and these rights can vary county-to-county, state-to-state, and even airline carrier-to-airline carrier. An ESA handler should not expect to receive the same reception and treatment in two different locales, and should habitually call ahead or do research before traveling, moving, or visiting a new location with their ESA. 

Myth # 3: ESA certification is available, nationwide, and/or federally recognized.

The truth: While any animal can certainly bring comfort to his owner/handler, true certification for ESAs is not available. There are several organizations that suggest that they offer this certification, but the fact is that only a letter from a handler’s mental health professional can verify that their companion animal is considered an emotional support animal. Letters from other types of doctors, such as general practitioners or specialists in physical medicine, are not appropriate for declaring or verifying an animal as an ESA. 

If a handler has a severe enough mental illness, they may be able to have their ESA trained and certified as a service dog, affording him additional rights under the ADA. Again, to do so, the animal in question must be trained to perform a specific disability-related task in service to his handler; simple companionship and comfort does not meet the threshold for service animal designation.

Myth # 4: ESAs must wear some kind of identifying vest or collar.

The truth: Some service dog handlers find it’s easier to put a highly visible “working dog – do not pet” message vest on their animal, rather than having the same conversation constantly with strangers. These vests are not a requirement for any kind of service animal, however, and handlers are not required to visibly identify their companion animals as service or emotional support providers. 

With unscrupulous ecommerce sites now offering everything from fake service dog vests to ESA and service dog “paperwork” that’s completely fabricated, items like vests, badges, and collars are no longer reliable for even passing identification of ESAs. Handlers may still wish to use these tools to prevent strangers from touching, grabbing, or petting their ESA, but should be aware these items offer no legal protections and will not compel legitimacy or entry for a companion animal.

Myth # 5: Businesses must allow ESAs, no matter how the animal is acting.

The truth: While service animals and ESAs receive certain protections and freedom to access otherwise pet-free spaces, the agreement is that access comes with an expectation of behavior. If at any time a companion animal, whether a certified service animal or an ESA, damages, ruins, or aggressively threatens a business or its patrons, dog and handler may be legally asked to leave, immediately. If an ESA has an “accident” in the business, it is the full responsibility of his owner to clean it up; a business or its employees may never be legally compelled to do so. 

Myth # 6: Existing pets can simply be called emotional support animals.

The truth: Even if an existing pet has been instrumental in helping his handler through loss, depression, PTSD, or other mental ailments, he is not automatically an ESA. To be considered an ESA, a letter from the handler’s current, licensed mental health professional is required, listing out the reasons that pet is required and what specific disability the pet assists with.

Out of a desire to spend as much time as possible with their beloved pet, some handlers lie or misrepresent their animal. This is a bad idea for several reasons, the most important one being that it undermines the legitimacy of true service animals and ESAs. A pet owner should not call or present their pets as ESAs if they are not, plain and simple.

Myth # 7: It’s harmless and/or legal to lie about an animal being a service animal or ESA.

The truth: It is never ethically permissible to lie about a pet or generic companion animal being a service animal or ESA. This hurts the entire community of assistance animals and their owners, and makes it harder for handlers of legitimate service animals to exercise their rights when finding a home, securing a job, shopping, and travelling. Buying fake certifications or wearable gear for a companion animal with an intent to deceive helps fund assistance animal fraud, compounding the issue.

In reality, attempting to pass a pet or companion animal off as something more isn’t just tacky and unethical, it may be illegal as well. Several states – California, New Jersey, and Texas among them – have passed laws handing down hefty fines and even jail time to assistance animal frauds. If an able-bodied handler wouldn’t knowingly park in a handicapped parking space to “save time” at the grocery store, they shouldn’t be willing to undertake fraud just to keep their pet with them everywhere they go. 

As more states and counties pass laws regulating how service animals and ESAs are classified and tracked, fraud will be edged out in the face of stiff penalties. 

Myth # 8: Any animal can be an ESA.

The truth: A mental health professional-recommended ESA is bound by the same ethical considerations as his service-oriented cousins: he must be well-behaved. An animal that acts out in public, attempts to escape his handler, lunges at strangers, or can’t sit still won’t make a good ESA. The idea of an ESA is that he spends time being a companion, devoted to his handler: he can’t do that if he becomes anxious or excitable in crowds, or constantly pulls at a leash to chase squirrels. An ESA is supposed to, after all, help distract their handler with companionship, not additional work. Just as service dogs are chosen for their breed traits and historical ease of training, ESAs should be chosen based on their temperament and ability to accompany their handlers while behaving themselves.

Additionally, a handler has an obligation to a potential ESA to keep them healthy and well cared-for. A small exotic bird, for example, could easily catch a chill if he is brought to a drafty area. Likewise, a dog may injure his paws if he is taken out on exceptionally hot or cold pavement. A handler needs to keep their animal’s basic needs – temperature, protection from the elements, access to food and water, and frequent bathroom breaks – in mind at all times. While an ESA is a tool for the handler’s comfort, he’s also a living creature and should never be used as a “vanity item” or for support at the expense of his own comfort. 

Myth # 9: Having an ESA means a handler is weak or “can’t handle” life.

The truth: Weak individuals don’t actively seek out and use tools to help them better their day-to-day life and the way they navigate the world. An emotional support animal is a tool to help survivors of abuse, depression, and mental illness find the strength and focus they need to live with their disability and get through the day. A handler with an ESA is no more “weak” than a blind handler with their Seeing Eye service dog, or a handler with a physical disability relying on their service dog to bring them a phone or medication. 

Today, ESAs are taking the spotlight in the media specifically because they’re effective. Just as new medications or therapies make the rounds among patients and in the news, so has treating mental illness with the comfort and care of emotional support animals. When non-disabled people belittle or brush off the quality of life difference ESAs offer their handlers, they’re essentially saying that a person with an illness shouldn’t take a proven medication simply because it’s new and unfamiliar. This is a faulty and potentially harmful belief system, and should be corrected and eliminated whenever possible.

Myth # 10: ESAs must be a certain size/breed/age or type of animal.

The truth: Just as with service animals, size doesn’t matter as long as the animal is capable of performing his designated companionship or support tasks. In fact, according to the ESA Registration Of America, “any animal that provides therapeutic value can be considered an Emotional Support Animal.” In areas where ESAs are afforded legal protections, such as inclusion in normally pet-free housing, this means that breed restrictions such as Pitbull bans generally won’t apply. Handlers should research and familiarize themselves with state and local laws before entering into contracts or travelling with their ESA. 

Summary: Knowing Your Rights & Dispelling ESA Myths

Emotional support animals have a lot to offer their owners, as well as the world around them. For their handlers, knowing rights and dispelling myths is the first step towards responsible ESA ownership and reliance on the companionship duties they perform. 

When properly prescribed and verified with a handler’s mental health professional, these animals increase quality of life, bringing hope to their afflicted owners with steadfast company and quiet emotional strength. Much like their service animal cousins, ESAs bring hope to those in need with patience, ingenuity, and an unshakable work ethic that’s full of impeccable behavior and an abundance of affection. 

Sources Cited:
  1. Brennan, Jacquie; Nguyen, Vinh (Ed.). “Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals.” Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) National Network, (no publish date), https://adata.org/publication/service-animals-booklet. Accessed July 14, 2019.
  2. “What is the Difference Between a Therapy Dog vs a Service Dog?” Therapy Dogs.com, (no publish date), https://www.therapydogs.com/difference-therapy-dog-vs-service-dog/. Accessed July 14, 2019.
  3. “Emotional support animal.” Wikipedia.org, (no publish date), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emotional_support_animal. Accessed July 14, 2019.

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