Emotional support animals (ESAs) are used to help people live and cope with their mental health disorders. After all, animals are incapable of judgment and provide companionship to those who feel isolated. This is very important to people, especially in our society that heavily stigmatizes mental health disorders. You may have considered obtaining an animal companion of your own. However, there is a difference between a pet and an ESA — both technically and legally — that people need to understand.
The Difference Between Emotional Support and Service and Therapy Animals
There are distinct differences between the types of animals that directly aid humans and can be summarized in three categories.
#1. Service Animals
Service animals are dogs that are trained to perform a specific function to aid someone’s mental and physical needs. For example, dogs are trained to guide the blind or to detect drops in blood sugar levels. Psychiatric service dogs are another example specifically used for mental health disorders.
These animals are subject to strict training; even so, not every animal passes to become a service animal. Service animals that pass their training and are paired with their people are then legally protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). A service animal can go anywhere their person can, and it is illegal to bar public entry to a person with a service animal.
#2. Emotional Support Animals
ESAs can be any domestic animal and require no specialized training to perform specific functions. An individual may seek specialized training, but it is not required for an ESA as their role is to provide support and comfort. ESAs are protected legally, meaning a person may not be denied housing for their ESA, and an ESA can accompany someone while traveling by air.
However, these protections apply to animals small enough not to cause property damage. Dogs, cats, and birds are the most common ESAs for this reason. For larger and more exotic animals — such as horses and other livestock — that cannot fit inside a house or airline seat, expect to find alternative housing and ways to travel. Some businesses may allow well-behaved ESAs to enter. Simply call ahead and ask what their ESA policy is.
#3. Therapy Animals
Therapy animals are animals highly trained to service groups of people, such as hospitals and schools. For example, horses used for therapeutic horseback riding as a treatment for specific health disorders are therapy animals. Therapy animals go through a rigorous selection process and must meet several crucial requirements before they can go into service. ESAs are not therapy animals, and the two terms cannot be used interchangeably.
How to Get an Emotional Support Animal
Getting an ESA is similar to getting a prescription for medication. You must speak with the mental health professional treating you first. They will determine if an ESA will help you with your mental health. An emotional support animal is not always recommended to people.
Remember, an ESA is a living, breathing animal that requires emotional, physical, and financial needs that must be met to keep them healthy. If you cannot meet these requirements to give your ESA a good quality of life, you will not be recommended an ESA.
However, if you do have the means to care for an animal, your doctor may then write and sign a letter for you. This is simply a letter that details why you need an ESA to help with your mental health disorder. It’s important to keep this letter and make copies you can take with you. It can be used to prove to housing and airlines that you need your ESA to be comfortable in public. Even though it’s illegal to demand proof that your ESA is what you say they are, people may still ask for it. Having a copy removes all doubt about what you claim and can make public interactions smoother.
ESAs can come from anywhere. Some people elect to adopt animals from shelters. Others may purchase animals of specific breeds, especially if said breeds are renowned for their gentleness and empathy. Some animals, such as parrots, are chosen for their longevity. It’s important to do your research beforehand to understand the needs of your ESA candidate before you bring them home.
Can My Pet Become My Emotional Support Animal?
Yes, your already existing pet can become your ESA, especially true if your mental health professional knows that they are already helping you. However, it’s important to know that not every animal has the disposition to handle public places. Your cat might provide for all your emotional needs at home. However, they also might throw an aggressive fit when trapped on a crowded plane. This is not a good situation to be in, both for you, your pet, and the public.
There is a problem with people buying fake letters online and bringing poorly behaved and aggressive animals out in public. It’s especially bad when these animals are put in vests usually reserved for working service dogs. As a result, many people have become hostile to the idea of ESAs. Some may not believe innocent people when they have an actual ESA with them.
Emotional Support Animal Checklist
Before you claim your pet as an ESA, it’s important to be sure that they:
- Are housebroken or wear protective garments to prevent biohazards when in public
- Can remain calm in loud, stressful situations
- Are habituated to people and other animals
- Have no aggression toward people or other animals
- Can follow basic commands for their safety and others
- Are used to being on a harness or leash
By ensuring your pet fits these criteria before accompanying you in public, you ensure that you, your pet, and the public stay safe. ESAs are not common in public, so be aware you may influence others in how they view ESAs in general.
Getting treatment for a mental health disorder doesn’t always have to be just therapy and medication. There are other ways to help people with their mental health troubles, with more treatment options being discovered yearly. One treatment that has seen a lot of success is using animals to provide comfort in ways that a therapist or medication cannot. This is known as an emotional support animal. Here at Acera Health in Costa Mesa, California, we work hard to ensure that all our clients have access to as many treatment options as possible. If you or someone you love is struggling with a mental health disorder and may benefit from an ESA, call (949) 647-4090 today.
Melody is a highly skilled proactive clinical administrator, with more than 17 years of experience serving the community in the behavioral health field.
Her clinical management career started in 2011 as a compliance manager and program director. In 2018, she became an executive as chief clinical officer (CCO). She is a seasoned licensed marriage & family therapist.