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ESA 101: What You Need to Know About Owning an Emotional Support Dog

Emotional support animals are often the butt of jokes made in poor taste by abled people who want an excuse to get a pet. But for those who actually need them, an emotional support animal can provide critical relief of symptoms. If you’re thinking about getting one for yourself, here are some things you should know.

Qualifications and Requirements

Any dog, or indeed any animal, can become an emotional support animal (ESA) under the following conditions: the animal’s owner suffers a disabling mental illness, and a licensed mental health professional prescribes the animal’s comforting presence as a way to ease clinical depression, anxiety, PTSD, or other conditions. Just over 16 million American adults suffer from clinical depression.

An emotional support animal is different from a service animal: ESAs are not specifically trained to perform tasks that assist someone with a disability. The most commonly seen service animals are guide dogs for blind people, but there are service animals who alert deaf people to important sounds, and even those who are trained to help calm anxiety attacks or relieve depressive episodes. The requirements for service animals are more stringent than for ESAs.

Going Out in Public

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), only service animals are permitted to access any and all public spaces. For example, restaurants or shops that prohibit animals are obliged to allow service animals to enter, but not emotional support animals. However, under the Air Carrier Access Act, emotional support animals are permitted to travel on airplanes with their owners, so long as they aren’t reptiles, insects, or too large for the cabin. To avoid the bureaucratic hassle, it’s prudent to bring along a copy of your prescription when you fly. Sadly, there is no equivalent legislation for bus or rail travel, so emotional support animals fall under the same rules as pets in those situations.

Lodging and Housing

If you have an emotional support animal, it’s against the law for a landlord to refuse to rent to you, or a realtor to refuse to sell to you, on that basis. That’s thanks to the Fair Housing Act (FHA), which requires that landlords make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities — even when the lease or homeowner’s compact normally bans pets. Unfortunately, the FHA does not apply to motels and hotels, so although you can take your ESA with you on a plane, you will need to look for hotels or motels that allow pets.

If you have a mental illness and a pet who gives you comfort, then asking your mental health professional about an ESA designation for your dog, cat, or other pet may allow you to find a companion that can provide needed assistance.

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