If you have an emotional or mental condition that affects your daily life, you may find comfort and support in the form of a pet. If so, your cat, dog, or other pet serves as an emotional support animal (ESA). Some laws provide ESAs and their owners certain legal protections, and an ESA letter is the only proof you need to ensure that support. Read on to learn how to get an official letter for your emotional support animal.
What are emotional support animals?
Pet owners know that dogs, cats, and other animals can provide a unique form of comfort. This type of support can be essential for individuals with emotional or mental disabilities. An animal’s comforting presence can significantly mitigate the symptoms of mental illness and help people find peace and security in their daily lives. Animals that provide this type of assistance are called emotional support animals, and they are covered by laws that afford them specific accommodations. The two most common ESAs are emotional support dogs and emotional support cat.
What is an ESA letter?
An ESA letter is the official document that confirms an individual’s need for an emotional support animal. It’s written and signed by a physician, licensed therapist, or licensed mental health professional (LMHP) who has evaluated the individual and determined that an ESA would be an effective part of a treatment plan for the patient’s emotional or mental condition. Pettable can explain how to get an ESA letter and connect you with an LMHP who meets your state’s requirements.
This letter serves as evidence of an ESA’s role in their owner’s mental health management and gives them more legal rights than a regular pet has. With an ESA letter, an individual has the right to keep an assistance animal in their home, even if the housing provider has restrictions on pets.
Disabilities that qualify for an emotional support dog
Emotional support dogs can provide help for a wide range of emotional and mental conditions. To qualify for an ESA dog, you must be diagnosed with a mental or emotional disability that’s recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Physicians, licensed therapists, and LMHPs can diagnose mental disorders and create treatment plans. Here are some examples of disabilities that may qualify for an ESA dog:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
- Chronic stress
- Bipolar disorder
- Social phobia
- Panic disorder (with or without agoraphobia)
Other mental disorders may also qualify for an ESA. If you think an emotional support dog may help you cope with symptoms of a diagnosed mental illness, you should talk to your mental health provider about it. If you don’t have a diagnosis for a mental disorder but think you may have one, it’s vital to get evaluated by an LMHP. These professionals can help you manage and cope with the daily symptoms of a mental or emotional disorder.
Benefits of an ESA letter
An official ESA letter through Pettable provides several unique benefits for you and your emotional support animal.
The main benefit of an ESA letter is accommodation under the Fair Housing Act (FHA). The FHA requires housing providers to make reasonable accommodations for tenants with mental disabilities and their assistance animals.
In practice, this means that a landlord should allow you to keep your ESA in your home regardless of any restrictions on pets that the housing complex may have. Your ESA does not count toward the number of pets you can keep in your home, either.
An ESA letter can provide travel accommodations in certain circumstances. Until the beginning of 2021, the Air Carrier Access Act required airlines to give ESAs the same rights as service dogs: allowing them to fly in the passenger cabin at no additional cost.
However, the U.S. Department of Transportation amended the ACAA in January 2021 to exclude ESAs from its protections. As such, each airline may make its own policy for ESAs. If you choose to fly with an air carrier that accommodates emotional support animals, you will need to provide an official ESA letter.
Having an ESA letter can make it easier to cope with your mental illness symptoms without discussing your condition with strangers. For example, if you are looking for a new place to live, you don’t have to give your potential landlord sensitive details about your mental or emotional condition. You just need to provide them with your ESA letter. Once you’ve shown a housing provider your official ESA letter, you don’t need to give any more details about your mental illness.
Having your ESA letter with you can also allow you to enter some private buildings and public places (subject to local laws). You don’t have to worry about discussing your mental health condition with people around you; simply use your letter to indicate your dog or cat’s ESA status.
The FHA also prohibits housing providers from charging additional fees for emotional support animals. That means you can keep your ESA in your house or apartment without paying a pet fee, cleaning fee, or other deposit.
Who qualifies for an ESA letter?
To qualify for an ESA letter, you must have a diagnosed mental illness or emotional condition with symptoms that an emotional support animal can mitigate. You can’t determine for yourself whether you meet the qualifications for an ESA – a physician or LMHP must evaluate you. Additionally, the healthcare provider or LMHP must be licensed to practice in your state.
What’s the difference between an ESA and a service animal?
Emotional support animals and service animals both provide invaluable assistance to their owners. However, there are several differences between them:
- Only dogs are recognized as service animals by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), whereas any animal can be an ESA.
- Service animals are trained to perform specific tasks, such as guiding a blind person or calling emergency services when their owner has a seizure. ESAs don’t need any special training.
- Service dogs have complete legal protection to accompany their owners anywhere, including airplanes, hotels, stores, and public spaces. The legal protections for an ESA are related to housing providers and some travel organizations.
- ESAs aren’t required to wear any items that identify them as emotional support animals, whereas service dogs must wear vests designating them as service animals.
Service dogs and emotional support animals provide special assistance to their owners, but they are subject to different legal protections.
How to get your ESA letter: step-by-step instructions
Need to get an official letter for your emotional support animal? Here are the steps to follow.
Step 1: Connect with a doctor or LMHP
A legitimate ESA letter must be written and signed by a licensed physician, therapist, or mental health professional. You cannot write one yourself, use a fill-in-the-blank form, or get a generic letter from the internet. You’ll need to contact a medical provider who can evaluate your condition, determine if you need an ESA, and write a letter that meets the requirements in your state. The easiest way to connect with an LMHP is through a service like Pettable.
Step 2: Complete the evaluation
The law requires an LMHP to complete a live consultation with a patient before writing a “prescription” for an ESA. Fortunately, you don’t need to have this appointment in person; phone calls and video chats are valid. This evaluation aims to discuss your symptoms with a mental health professional who can diagnose your condition and help you understand it better. During the consultation, you can discuss why you think an ESA would help you and get a professional’s opinion on the matter.
If you already have a mental health professional treating your condition, you may want to talk with them about getting an ESA letter. However, not all LMHPs are familiar with the requirements for writing this document, so you may want to reach out to a provider who is.
Step 3: Get your official ESA letter
Once a physician, licensed therapist, or LMHP determines that your mental or emotional disability qualifies you for an emotional support animal, they can write and sign an official ESA letter. There are several requirements this document must meet to be valid:
- It must include your full name and a diagnosis of your disability.
- It must be written on your healthcare provider’s official letterhead.
- It must include your LMHP’s full name, license number, and specialty.
- It must be signed and dated by the LMHP.
- Some states may require the letter to include details about the recommended ESA, such as species and breed.
Letters that fail to meet these conditions may not hold up to legal challenges by housing or travel providers.
Once you have your ESA letter, there is nothing else you need to do to certify your animal. There is no official registry of emotional support animals, nor is there a need to go through a “certification” process. Be wary of online sites that offer to “register” your ESA for a fee; these organizations are scams.
ESAs don’t need special training, though it’s a good idea to make sure they are calm and responsive, especially around other people. You don’t have to make your emotional support animal wear a special vest or collar indicating their status as an ESA, but doing so may help reduce invasive questions from strangers about your condition.
Types of ESA letters
ESA letters facilitate legal protections for you and your emotional support animal in housing and travel circumstances. While travel and housing ESA letters are very similar, one key feature differentiating them is the expiration date.
An ESA letter for housing
The purpose of an ESA letter for housing is to ensure landlords accommodate you and your assistance animal as required by the FHA. With an ESA letter, you can feel confident about keeping your emotional support animal in your home, even if the place where you live has restrictions on pets. As an ESA, your dog, cat, bird, or other animal isn’t subject to those restrictions, and you can’t be charged additional fees. An ESA letter is valid for the entire term of your lease or ownership.
An ESA letter for travel
An ESA letter for travel is the paperwork you need to qualify for an airline’s ESA program. Since the ACAA no longer requires air carriers to accommodate ESAs, your letter may not have any bearing on flights with carriers that don't allow emotional support animals. However, if you choose an airline that does have an ESA program, your letter is the evidence you need to prove your eligibility. In most cases, you’ll be able to bring your animal in the passenger cabin with you.
An ESA letter is only valid for travel purposes for one year. If your flight occurs more than 365 days after the date your document was signed, you’ll need to get an updated letter.
What laws do ESA owners need to know?
There are several laws that you should be aware of. Understanding these rules can ensure you get all the ESA accommodations you deserve.
Airline laws: The Air Carrier Access Act
Congress initially passed the Air Carrier Access Act in 1986. The goal was to ensure airlines make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. The U.S. Department of Transportation is responsible for amending and enforcing the ACAA. Until recently, the ACAA provided legal protection for both service animals and emotional support animals, but that changed in January 2021.
The U.S. DOT changed the Air Carrier Access Act to no longer recognize ESAs as service animals. As such, emotional support animals do not have the same rights as service dogs.
The ACAA requires airlines to allow service dogs to fly for free with their owners in the plane’s passenger cabin. However, the amended law doesn’t make airlines give the same rights to ESAs.
Some airlines still allow ESAs to fly for free with their owners, but most carriers treat emotional support animals as pets; they must fly in the plane’s cargo hold. Many airlines charge additional fees for ESAs and pets. If you do find a carrier that offers an ESA program, be prepared to provide your official letter when you make your reservation.
Housing laws: The Fair Housing Act
Perhaps the most critical law related to emotional support animals is the Fair Housing Act. Under the FHA, housing providers cannot discriminate against individuals with disabilities. They must make reasonable accommodations for assistance animals, including ESAs.
These reasonable accommodations generally apply to a housing provider’s rules about pets. For example, if you want to move into a new apartment in a complex that doesn’t allow pets, your landlord cannot discriminate against you because you need an assistance animal. They must allow you to keep your ESA with you in your new home; pet restrictions do not apply to service animals or assistance animals.
Once you provide a landlord with your ESA letter, they cannot ask for additional documentation or more details about your medical condition. The letter is all you need to get legal protection for your ESA.
In some cases, housing providers may refuse to grant your request to keep your ESA with you. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines these exceptions to FHA requirements. Specifically, if a housing provider can prove that accommodating you would “impose an undue financial and administrative burden” or “pose a direct threat to the health and safety of others,” they may be able to legally deny your request.
There is very little chance that your request to keep an emotional support dog or cat would fall under one of these exceptions. However, if you want to keep an emotional support miniature horse in a third-floor apartment, the landlord may be able to deny your request.
Workplace and education laws:
ESA owners should also be aware of laws relating to educational facilities and workplaces. The law prevents schools and employers from discriminating against students and employees who have disabilities. As such, you should be allowed to keep your ESA with you when attending classes or going to work, even if the building doesn’t typically allow pets.
Commonly asked questions about emotional support animals
Here are answers to some of the most common questions about emotional support animals and their documentation.
How to identify a fake ESA service?
The easiest way to identify a fake ESA service is if it charges additional fees to “register” or “certify” your emotional support animal. There is no official ESA registry, so any attempt to charge fees for such a service is a scam.
A legitimate ESA service, such as Pettable, facilitates the process of getting evaluated by a mental health professional who can write an ESA letter. Services that offer DIY fill-in-the-blank letters or generic documents that don’t include an LMHP’s license information are fake.
Who can write an ESA letter?
An ESA letter is similar to a prescription, so only licensed medical professionals can write one. Several types of healthcare providers can write an ESA letter, including psychologists, licensed therapists, primary care physicians, psychiatrists, and licensed clinical social workers.
What does an ESA letter look like?
A legitimate ESA letter should be written on the medical professional’s official letterhead. The document should include the medical provider’s license number along with their signature and the date.
Can a physician write an ESA letter?
Yes, as long as they have evaluated you and determined that you have an emotional or mental disability that would benefit from an ESA. The physician must be licensed to practice in your state. Frequently, general physicians don’t have much experience diagnosing and treating mental illness, so you may want to find a mental health specialist to manage your recovery.
Can a nurse practitioner write an ESA letter?
No. Under existing laws, only certain authorized professionals may write ESA letters, including physicians, LMHPs, and licensed clinical social workers.
Can a therapist write an ESA letter?
Yes, if the therapist is licensed in your state. You must go through a consultation with the therapist so they can determine whether an ESA would be the right treatment for your mental illness.
What does an ESA letter need to say?
An ESA letter needs to include your full name and details about your mental illness as evaluated by your healthcare provider. The letter must include a recommendation for an emotional support animal.
Your state may have additional requirements for an emotional support animal letter, such as details about the ESA’s species/breed. You can ensure your document meets state requirements by going through a reliable service, such as Pettable, to schedule a consultation with an LMHP who is familiar with the laws of your state.
How long is an ESA letter good for?
The answer depends on the type of letter you have. If your ESA letter is primarily for housing purposes, it does not expire. You don’t need to provide your landlord with an “updated” letter. However, if you are using your ESA letter for travel accommodation, you will need to renew it every year. Travel ESA letters are only valid for one year at a time.
Do emotional support animals require training?
ESAs aren’t the same as service dogs, so they don’t require special training to perform specific tasks. However, it’s a good idea to ensure that your emotional support animal has some basic manners, so you don’t have to worry about them threatening people or destroying property. Business owners and air carriers may be more willing to accommodate well-behaved ESAs.
Protect yourself and your ESA with a legitimate letter
If you have a mental or emotional disability, an emotional support animal can help you cope with your day-to-day symptoms by providing a comforting presence. You may already have a dog, cat, or another animal that gives you support and comfort. If so, it’s essential to get an official letter that designates your animal as an ESA.
An ESA letter makes it easier to ensure housing providers accommodate you and your emotional support animal. Suppose you don’t yet have an ESA but think you would benefit from one. In that case, your LMHP can evaluate your condition, make a recommendation for an ESA, and write a letter, so you have legal backing in place when you get your emotional support animal.