How Are Emotional Support Animals Protected By Law?

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Confusion abounds when it comes to emotional support animals (ESAs).I’ve read stories about dogs pooping on planes, reporters parading llamas and turtles into shops around town, and the implied problem of the fakers — those who don’t really need an ESA, but who exploit the law to get around airline fees.

As someone who really does need her ESA, I find this all pretty distressing. My own dog, Luna, quite literally got me off antidepressants, and I know others whose dogs have reduced or even eliminated panic attacks and debilitating anxiety. Even more distressing than the confusion, though, is the fact that for people who need an ESA, the Internet is clogged with useless and incorrect information.

Luna, my emotional support dog, explores Croatia. (All photos courtesy Gigi Griffis)
Luna, my emotional support dog, explores Croatia. (All photos courtesy Gigi Griffis)

Let me try to set that right by answering the three main questions about these valuable companions.

1. What is an emotional support animal (ESA)?

An emotional support animal is a dog (or cat) who accompanies a person with an invisible (emotional or mental) disability. And under the law they are protected in two main ways:

  1. ESAs are allowed in no-pet housing, and the landlord cannot charge an additional fee.
  2. ESAs are allowed to fly in-cabin and outside a carrier on any U.S. flight (both flights within the U.S. and flights to and from the U.S. from abroad).

That’s it.

Luna, a friend's new puppy, and I enjoying lunch in the Swiss Alps.
Luna, a friend’s new puppy, and I enjoying lunch in the Swiss Alps.

Those are the protections. As a disabled person with an ESA, you can’t legally be denied housing or flights.Which means that ESAs are not legally guaranteed entry into other no-dog spaces such as restaurants, no-pets hotels, and other no-pets businesses. If you do need your dog in one of those spaces, you’ll have to ask the owner, and they are fully within their rights to say no.

That said, I find most owners are compassionate when it comes down to it. When I missed a flight and got stranded in New York City overnight, a no-pets hotel made an exception and allowed Luna and I to book a room. When I was training Luna for therapy work — to work in hospitals with kids — I asked nicely if we could dine on some outdoor patios that normally didn’t allow dogs. About half of the time, the owners said yes.

Keep in mind, though, that business owners do not have to accommodate an ESA. If you have such an animal, make it clear that you are asking for permission to enter a no-pets zone. Make sure they know you aren’t trying to bully them, going to sue them, etc. That you just need a room for the night at the last moment and don’t have time to search for a pet-friendly option. Or you just want to grab lunch and happen to have your ESA with you. And whatever the owner says, thank them for their consideration and respect their decision.

Luna enjoying the hospitality of 25 Hours Hotel in Zurich, Switzerland.
Luna enjoying the hospitality of 25 Hours Hotel in Zurich, Switzerland.

2. What are the legal requirements to get an ESA?

In order to have your dog (or cat) legally qualified as an ESA, you’ll need a letter from your mental health professional that states three important things:

  1. That you have been diagnosed with a disability recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4thEdition.
  2. That you require your animal as an accommodation for air travel or an activity at your destination.
  3. That you are under the ongoing care of the mental health professional who wrote the letter and that the person is licensed to diagnose mental health disabilities.
Luna in her approved airline carrier. Even though ESAs can travel outside carriers, Luna prefers to fly cozied up in her Sleepypod Air.
Luna in her approved airline carrier. Even though ESAs can travel outside carriers, Luna prefers to fly cozied up in her Sleepypod Air.

The letter must also be on the letterhead of your mental health professional and have the full contact information and license information (date, type, issuing state) for said mental health professional (the airlines and your landlord are within their rights to call and confirm its authenticity, though they may not ask about your specific disability). The letter is good for one year (then your mental health professional will need to update it). I always recommend having copies of it on your computer and in several places in hard copy.

That’s it. That’s the paperwork for an ESA. Keep in mind that the letter must be from a mental health professional whose care you are under, as I said above. This means letters purchased online are probably not valid. Also note that you do not need a vest or badge for your ESA, and a vest or badge does not make an ESA valid.

Luna on a French beach.
Luna on a French beach.

3. Are there additional requirements for air travel?

Another important thing to know about ESAs is that they are still subject to the animal import and export requirements of states and countries. This means that if you are flying overseas, you will still need to fill out paperwork and comply with any quarantine laws in the country you are traveling to. So if you are taking your ESA abroad, make sure to research the country’s travel requirements long before you travel.

You should also note that even though ESAs don’t have a specific training requirement, they are expected to be well-behaved. Legally, an airline is allowed to deny you entry to the plane if your animal is behaving aggressively, defecating, or otherwise causing a scene.

Also, keep in mind that only dogs and cats are fully legally protected as ESAs. Airlines may choose not to fly other animals, even if you have a letter.

The information above is based on my experiences and my reading of legal documents, but understand: I am not a legal professional. Before you travel with or paper your own ESA, make sure to check the regulations.

For more information about the legalities of ESAs, check out this helpful resource from the Americans With Disabilities Act National Network. Here’s the number for the Department of Transportation disability hotline: 800-778-4838. And here is my always-updated Q&A on the topic.

Read more from Gigi about traveling with an ESA:

Gigi Griffis is a world-traveling entrepreneur and writer with a special love for inspiring stories, new places, and living in the moment. In May 2012, she sold her stuff and took to the road with a growing business and a pint-sized pooch. You can follow her adventures at gigigriffis.com or friend her on Facebook.

9 thoughts on “How Are Emotional Support Animals Protected By Law?”

  1. My ex husband is trying to take my ESA dog from me. Can he? I have a letter from my MD and I am prescribed anxiety meds by him.

  2. ESA can help with symptoms of a mental health disability. ). A valid ESA letter will protect you and your Emotional Support Animal from specific regulations that would otherwise prevent them from accompanying you.https://esacare.com/adopting-emotional-support-animal-guide/ Emotional support animal’s rights are protected under the Fair Housing Amendment Act (FHAA) The FHAA allows emotional support animals access in housing facilities. Landlords are required to provide reasonable accommodations so you are granted equal opportunity to use and enjoy your housing. I guess this provision of ESAs was a brilliant and helpful move for all people needing emotional support. . Like it can be any animal. Dog, cat, or guinea pig. The basic thing that matters is these animals fill that emotional void in life.

  3. Therapy animals have been used in many instances to care for people for decades, whether they are physically ill and have emotional problems. I was diagnosed with PTSD a while back and what helped me the most during this painful journey is my beloved dog. I came across this website https://esacare.com/qualifying-for-an-esa-letter-guide/ when I wanted to get an ESA letter and I found this extremely beneficial, through this I got what I needed and I’m much satisfied now. Although all animals may provide relief for their owners, ESAs are specifically prescribed to people with individuals with disabilities diagnosed by licensed psychiatrists or professional medical staff. The purpose of the animal is thus to provide relief to their owner as a form of companion therapy, which can be extremely useful for people who suffer from PTSD. Having an ESA requires a commitment to care for your animal. For somebody who is suffering from PTSD, having this requirement helps the person to act without having to fall victim to their symptoms. Also, since animals are very affectionate, having an animal around is a never-ending stream of care and affection for the person.

  4. I got very bad anxiety and my landlord keep saying No about having a kitten or a cat I google it and I didn’t know that the cat can carm u down and support u through having anxiety well thank you I be getting a letter from my metal health worker about letting the cat stay with me as everyday life is harder with out help from a cat

  5. Hi I to have an ESA dog for 5 yrs now it pisses me off with all these fake ESA animals I got him registered with a reputable site not Google

  6. I appreciate you talking about consulting with your mental health professional before getting your emotional support animal certified. My friend has anxiety and is looking into getting her dog certified. Thank you for the information on what legal requirements go into certifying an animal.

  7. Thank you so much for this! I was diagnosed with anxiety and have had horrible panic attacks for all of my teen & adult life. Some of my attacks are so severe I have had to physically leave as I was unable to use coping mechanisms I have learned through therapy, workbooks, etc. It is not a matter of “just getting over it” as I have truly tried to just suck it up, white knuckle it, and deal with my anxiety. My shakes would get so bad in an attack that I would be physically unable to perform my job duties. Or my breathing would be so out of wack that I would be unable to speak or deal with customers (attacks come on often while I am at work ) Flying I would either get drunk or now that I am prescribed medication, take antianxiety meds to help ease my worry. Anxiety is a REAL issue in my life. It keeps me living in a constant state of moderate panic but sometimes it becomes overwhelming to the point where I feel like I am drowning.
    I got a letter from my doctor and I am going to try flying without the use of any substances prescribed or unprescribed (alcohol) and just take my ESA doggo with me. Also I just wanted to mention that since getting her about a month ago I have felt overall happier, less stressed, and less anxiety ridden on a daily basis. I am thankful that ESA’s exist for crazy, intense, anxiety ridden individuals such as myself. I can only hope that people who don’t need an ESA don’t try to abuse the system.
    Ps. I am very cynical and have a hard time believing in things I can’t physically see. For ex: Mental illness. I also don’t want to take the stance that I am “disabled” because I view myself as a strong, generally happy, independent woman. Life is what you make it. But anxiety is real ya’ll! It is a weakness I have been battling for a very long time (and have battled for YEARS without any type of ‘crutch’ ex: medication) Getting a dog has helped me immensely and I don’t think people should be punished for needing an ESA or for seeking help outside of a pill.
    <3

  8. Pingback: 5 Common Questions about Emotional Support Animal Registration

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