Emotional Support Animal

There’s a ton of information out there about how to register an emotional support animal (ESA). Some of the advice is sound, but some of it is just plain wrong. Here’s a comprehensive and accurate guide on how to register your emotional support animal.

What is an emotional support animal?

In short, an emotional support animal is a pet prescribed by a licensed mental health professional to treat the handler’s emotional or psychological disability. Unlike a service dog, which is specially trained to help deal with specific physical tasks their handler cannot carry out due to a disability, an emotional support animal typically serves as a therapeutic companion.

Rather than help their handlers with physical tasks, emotional support animals soothe their handlers simply by being in their presence. They’re often referred to as “comfort pets” for this reason.

What qualifies a handler to have an ESA?

The major requirement for qualifying to have a legal emotional support animal is being diagnosed by a licensed mental health professional as being emotionally disabled, often with a disorder like anxiety or depression. Once the handler is properly assessed and diagnosed, the licensed mental health professional can write them a prescription letter for an emotional support animal. This letter is typically valid for up to a year.

What qualifies an animal to be an ESA?

Under the ADA, only certified dogs can qualify to be service animals. However, any domesticated pet can be certified and registered as an emotional support animal. This list includes, but is not limited to:

  • Dogs
  • Cats
  • Birds
  • Rats
  • Snakes
  • Rabbits

The main requirement is that the emotional support animal is able to be properly managed in public places. No special training is required, but an emotional support animal must behave in a way that does not pose a safety threat or cause major disturbances when out in public.

What rights do an ESA and their handler have?

There are two main areas that you’ll have special rights within as an ESA handler: housing and flights.

Housing: If you have an emotional support animal, the Fair Housing Act (FHA) allows you to live in homes, apartments, and condos where pets are typically not allowed.

ESA handlers cannot legally be charged a deposit or pet fee for their emotional support animal. Weight, breed, and species restrictions do not apply to emotional support animals. Landlords or property managers cannot require an ESA to wear a distinctive vest or collar. They also cannot ask tenants for information about their emotional disability or medical records proving their need for an ESA.

The only requirement for protection under the FHA is that an ESA handler presents their prescription letter from a licensed mental health professional to their landlord or property manager.

It’s important to note that, according to the FHA, accommodations for emotional support animals do not have to be made for residents living in buildings with four or fewer units where the landlord occupies one of the units or single-family housing sold or rented without a real estate broker.

Flights: The Air Carrier Access Act requires airlines to allow ESA handlers to travel with their emotional support animals in the cabin and not be charged a fee.

If you’re flying with your emotional support animal, the airline will almost always require you to show your prescription letter from a licensed mental health professional documenting your need for an ESA. Many airlines will also ask that your emotional support animal wear a vest or collar that identifies them as an ESA.

While most airlines will need to see an ESA prescription letter, they cannot ask ESA handlers for information about their emotional disability or medical records proving their need for an ESA.

Many airlines require advance notification and special forms if you’re planning to fly with an ESA. It’s also important to note that some airlines do have restrictions when it comes to which species they allow to fly in the cabin. If you’re planning to fly with your emotional support animal, always check with the airline before making concrete travel plans to prevent any confusion or issues.

Are there any rights an ESA and their handler do not have?

Emotional support animal handlers are legally protected by the Fair Housing Act and the Air Carrier Access Act. Handlers are not guaranteed any rights beyond that. Hotels, restaurants, stores, and public transportation services legally do not have to make accommodations for you and your emotional support animal.

That being said, some places of business will allow your emotional support animal to accompany you if you show their registration.

Why should you register your ESA?

Registering an emotional support animal is not a legal requirement, but it is recommended and helpful. If you register your emotional support animal, the animal’s status as an ESA will seem more legitimate and official. It’ll also help eliminate confusion and confrontation when you’re out and about with your emotional support animal.

As mentioned before, some places of business will allow your ESA to accompany you if you show their registration, even if they do not legally have to accommodate emotional support animals and their handlers.

In general, it’s a lot easier to clear up any misunderstandings about your rights as an ESA handler if you have formal documentation in hand.

How can you register your ESA?

The process for registering an emotional support animal can vary, but it typically follows the same general guidelines and steps.

  1. Have a licensed mental health professional, such as a therapist or psychologist, in your state diagnose you with an emotional disability. A general practitioner or family doctor can technically diagnose you, but it’s best to seek the help of a licensed mental health professional for the purposes of registering an ESA.

There are several legitimate online services that will connect you with a licensed mental health professional who will help you with the process of being diagnosed in order to qualify to have an emotional support animal.

The longest running online companies that specialize in ESA letters are:

National Service Animal Registry (NSAR): www.nsarco.com

Chilhowee Psychological Services (CPS): www.cptas.com

  1. Once you are determined to be disabled, your provider writes a prescription letter dictating that an emotional support animal is part of your treatment plan. The prescription letter is usually valid for up to a year.

Again, this letter can come from a medical doctor, but there’s always a chance their letter will not be accepted when you’re claiming your rights as an ESA handler. A letter from a licensed mental health professional such as a therapist or psychiatrist will always be accepted.

  1. Choose a reputable organization to register your emotional support animal with. Since registering an ESA isn’t required by law, there are no government organizations that provide ESA registration. Although there are lots of agencies and companies out there that offer ESA registration services.

Here are a few things to look for when choosing a reputable organization:

  • Is the organization’s website secure and professional?
  • Does the organization promptly answer phone calls, emails, or chats when you try to contact them for more information?
  • Is the organization able to fully and knowledgeably answer questions you have about registering your pet as an emotional support animal?
  • Can you find trusted recommendations for and reviews of the organization?

The National Service Animal Registry (NSARCO) is a reputable and trusted organization that’s recommended by the US Justice Department, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, USA-based airlines, and more. NSARCO has been training and working with service dogs, emotional support animals, therapy animals, and drug detection animals since 1995. NSARCO assists over 50,000 disabled persons a year in more than 30 countries, including the USA, with their ESA and service animal needs.

  1. Register your ESA with your chosen organization. Most organizations will simply require you to submit your contact information, your pet’s information, and a photo of your pet. Fees will vary depending on the organization you choose.
  2. Once you submit your information and payment, you’ll receive your ESA registration materials. Most organizations provide a registration letter and ID card at a minimum.

Here’s a sampling of what you’ll get when you register your emotional support animal with the National Service Animal Registry:

  • Lifetime ESA registration
  • Inclusion in National Online Service Dog Database
  • Framable certificate
  • ESA ID card
  • ESA collar ID tag (optional)
  • ESA vest with patches (optional)
  • Foldable ESA information cards (optional)

Remember: You can register your pet as an ESA without having a letter from a licensed mental health professional, but simply registering a pet does not give you any legal rights as an ESA handler. You must be diagnosed and have a prescription letter in order to take advantage of those rights.

If you already have a certified emotional support animal or you’re looking into getting one, registering the animal with an organization like NSARCO is highly recommended. Registration simply makes life a little easier for any disabled person wishing to travel with their emotional support animal.