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Are Emotional Support Animals Protected By Law? Facts & FAQ

Written by: Chris Dinesen Rogers

Last Updated on May 17, 2024 by Dogster Team

girl caresses emotional support dog

Are Emotional Support Animals Protected By Law? Facts & FAQ

Dogs have been our companions for up to 40,000 years. Initially, canines served functional roles, accompanying humans out hunting or carrying our supplies in sleds or carts. Eventually, they became our best friends, so segueing into emotional support animals was inevitable.

But are emotional support animals legally protected? The answer is yes and no, depending on the context. Laws regulating them exist on the federal, state, and municipality levels. However, if you’re wondering something like, “Can my emotional support animal fly with me?” the answer is probably not. Federal regulations allowing for their inclusion went to the wayside in December 2020. Let’s begin with some definitions before we go further into detail.

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Defining an Emotional Support Animal

An emotional support animal once existed under the umbrella term of “service animal.” The definition outlined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) changed in March 2011. The updated act states that service animals are “… dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” The gist is that the dog is doing something useful that is crucial to someone’s health.

An emotional support animal isn’t necessarily trained the same way that a service animal is. Their purpose is to provide comfort to individuals with mental or emotional health issues. However, the law also recognizes the needs of people with psychological conditions with psychiatric service dogs.

owner holding the leash of golden retriever dog at home
Image Credit: Prostock-studio, Shutterstock

Emotional Support Animal vs. Psychiatric Service Dog

The main difference between an emotional support animal and a psychiatric service dog is training. The former doesn’t have much, if any at all, while the latter does. Dogs are intelligent animals, and they can help people with conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and phobias, cope. If these dogs are trained to do things like sense an anxiety attack or take a specific action to stop or lessen its impact, then these dogs would qualify as service animals.

Requirements for an Emotional Support Animal

You can’t just call your pup your emotional support animal without proof. First, a licensed mental health professional (LMHP) must diagnose you with a mental or emotional health issue. Your LMHP will determine if you will benefit from an emotional support animal. Then, they will provide an ESA letter attesting to this need. It gives you the proof to ensure your rights are protected.

Emotional support dog with an elderly woman
Image Credit: everymmnt, Shutterstock

Federal Law

We’ve discussed the scope and changes of the ADA as it applies to service animals. Another layer of legal protection comes from the Fair Housing Act (FHA). It prohibits discrimination in housing. That includes requesting an assistance animal or emotional support animal for someone with a disability. The lessee must honor legitimate requests, even if pets aren’t allowed on the property. However, it’s contingent on the documentation you’ve obtained from your LMHP.

The ADA covers service animals when it comes to flying, but they don’t apply to emotional support animals since the changes made in December 2020. Instead, the federal government kicked the can back to the airlines to decide how to regulate them. Most have since prohibited emotional support animals, perhaps because of some pushing the rules and creating disturbances.

State Laws

States have also stepped up with various laws to protect an individual’s right to an emotional support animal, even if they aren’t dogs. Some, such as Minnesota, extend these protections to public places and employment. Nevertheless, the animal cannot pose any hazards to others. It also can’t cause too much disruption at work. You must also have documentation that an employer can request.

Other states, like Florida, address the problem of fraud with penalties for misrepresenting a pet as an emotional support animal. California tackles this issue from a different front, considering the patient-doctor relationship. They accept an ESA letter as proof. Nonetheless, you must have a medical relationship with your provider for at least 30 days.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

How Do Cities Regulate Emotional Support Animals?

Municipalities have gotten into the act with their set of rules and regulations. For example, Las Vegas accepts an ESA letter, but hotels are not obligated to accept the animal, nor must they waive a pet fee. Therefore, we strongly urge you to check with your state and city hall about any laws regarding emotional support animals. You should also keep your ESA letter with you when you travel.

Do I Have to Register My Emotional Support Animal?

Generally, no, but we recommend researching the obligations in your area.

Can I Get a Legitimate ESA Letter Online?

We recommend going to your LMHP for the letter. Remember that some places require you to have a patient-doctor relationship with the issuer of the document.

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Final Thoughts

Emotional support animals serve a valid purpose. They genuinely help individuals with emotional and mental health issues live without fear or anxiety, improving their quality of life. While federal protections are limited, many states recognize the benefits they provide with rights for owners of these animals. Researching the rules and regulations is imperative to ensure the rights of you and your emotional support animal.


Featured Image Credit: Anagarcia, Shutterstock

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