Emotional support animals have been getting a lot of press lately. ESAs, as they're known, are animals that accompany people with mental or emotional health concerns, as "prescribed" by a doctor. Because Emotional Support Animals are sometimes exempt from certain rules and regulations, more and more pet parents are asking questions about what it means to have their pet certified as an ESA. Let's talk about what you need to know.
What Do Emotional Support Animals Do?
Emotional Support Animals are, simply put, companions. The idea is that ESAs help people with significant mental or emotional health disorders function in their daily life. It's important to remember that Emotional Support Animals are not Service Animals. They are not specially trained in any way and they're not meant to function as physical helpers for their humans. ESAs do not need to wear any special tags or vests and they do not need to be certified by any particular organization. Although Psychiatric Service Animals sound much like ESAs, they're very different. Psychiatric Service Animals are specially trained to give aid to their owner at the onset of specific psychiatric symptoms; Emotional Support Animals do not have a "job" as it pertains to their human's condition.
Why Do People Want Emotional Support Animals?
There are some benefits afforded to ESA owners that aren't extended to the general pet-owning population. Emotional Support Animals are not covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) like Service Animals are, but they are offered some protections under both the Fair Housing Act and the Air Carrier Access Act. The Fair Housing Act states that people cannot be discriminated against due to a disability when searching for housing. This means that people who have a doctor's prescription for an ESA are not subject to the same breed or size limitations as the general public might be. In fact, Emotional Support Animals must be allowed, by law, even in housing where pets aren't allowed. Likewise, the Air Carrier Access Act holds that people must be allowed to be accompanied by their Emotional Support Animal in the cabin of the aircraft. This is particularly important for ESAs whose size would generally mean they must be stored in the cargo hold of an airplane. It's very important that you check with your specific airline if you're thinking of flying with a pet to find out what they require in regards to your Emotional Support Animal...all airlines' rules are different.
Who Gets to Have an Emotional Support Animal?
The ESA classification was initially conceived to assist people with severe mental disabilities, such as anxiety disorders, PTSD, or panic attacks. For people with these kinds of disorders, some research has shown that animals can play a significant role in treatment therapy. Someone with extreme social anxiety, for example, might feel more comfortable in a crowded public place with their trusted companion animal nearby. Because Emotional Support Animals do not have to be specially trained or certified, as their profile has grown there has been an increase in the number of people wishing to designate their pet as an ESA. While it's true that some people simply wish to move into a building that doesn't allow pets or take their pet out of its carrier on a plane, the vast majority of ESA owners are people who really and truly benefit from the presence of their animal.
How Can I Certify My Pet as an Emotional Support Animal?
Unlike true service animals, Emotional Support Animals are not expected to perform any specific tasks other than, well, being animals! You do not need to have an Emotional Support Animal "certified." If you would like your pet to qualify as an ESA, however, you will need a letter from a mental health professional (psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist) stating that you're being treated for a specific condition and that your pet aides in some aspect of your treatment. There are, of course, people who abuse this requirement. In order to preserve the rights of people who truly need the presence of an Emotional Support Animal to function, you should not ask your doctor to "prescribe" you an ESA unless you actually need one. If you do in fact need an ESA, remember that different entities require different kinds of paperwork from your doctor. A certified letter will usually suffice, but you should keep it up to date and check with the third-party before you make plans. Even if you do have a letter from your doctor stating your need for an Emotional Support Animal, some businesses and residences will still require you to submit additional paperwork. An Emotional Support Animal Certificate from a vet is commonplace for residences, for example, wherein the landlord needs to be sure the pet is not aggressive and is also up to date on vaccinations.
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