The Scoop on Emotional Support Animals

The ownership of a dog comes with numerous benefits, ranging from getting regular exercise to having a loyal companion. However, for individuals dealing with mental or emotional conditions, having a dog becomes critical for their daily functioning. These dogs provide emotional support and comfort, helping them navigate through challenges that could otherwise disrupt their quality of life. These furry companions are known as emotional support animals (ESAs). But to live freely with your furry companion in a rented apartment, you need an ESA doctor letter to avoid paying additional charges to the landlord.

What Constitutes an Emotional Support Dog? 

While all dogs form emotional connections with their owners, for a dog to be considered an emotional support dog, also referred to as an emotional support animal (ESA), a licensed mental health professional must prescribe it to a person with a disabling mental illness. This determination is made by therapists, psychologists, or psychiatrists, who recognize the animal’s necessity for the patient’s mental well-being. For instance, owning a pet might alleviate anxiety or provide a sense of purpose in life. Emotional support dogs can be of any age or breed.

Emotional Support Dog Vs. Service Dogs 

ESAs offer support through companionship and can help alleviate conditions like anxiety, depression, and specific phobias. However, they are not classified as service dogs and do not receive the same privileges as service dog users.

A service dog, such as a guide dog or psychiatric service dog, is generally allowed anywhere the public can go, but ESAs are an exception to this rule. For instance, ESAs are usually not allowed inside restaurants or shopping malls.

As per the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), service animals are defined as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” The ADA explicitly states that animals providing emotional comfort do not qualify as service animals. However, some state and local laws may have broader definitions, so it is essential to check with local government agencies to determine if ESAs have public access rights in a specific area.

The primary distinction between a service dog and an emotional support dog lies in whether the animal has been trained to perform a specific task or job directly related to the person’s disability. For example, service dogs are trained to alert hearing-impaired individuals to alarms, guide visually impaired people around obstacles, or provide pressure on someone with PTSD experiencing a panic attack.

Behaviors such as cuddling on cue while comforting do not qualify as specific tasks. The tasks must be specially trained to mitigate a particular disability rather than something the dog would instinctively do.

Emotional Support Dogs Are Not Psychiatric Service Dogs

Psychiatric service dogs undergo extensive training to work specifically with people whose disability stems from mental illness. These dogs can detect the onset of psychiatric episodes and help mitigate their effects. Although this might seem similar to the role of an ESA, the key difference lies in the tasks performed by the dog and the training received to perform those tasks.

Psychiatric service dogs (recognized by the ADA as service dogs) are trained to perform specific jobs that assist the handler in coping with a mental illness. For instance, the dog might remind a person to take prescribed medications, keep a disoriented individual in a dissociative episode from wandering into hazardous situations, or conduct room searches for someone with post-traumatic stress disorder. If the dog’s presence alone helps the person cope, it does not qualify as a psychiatric service dog.

Housing Accommodations for Individuals Who Use Emotional Support Dogs 

Individuals using ESAs are provided accommodations in housing and air travel under federal law. The Fair Housing Act includes ESAs in its definition of assistance animals. This means that people with disabilities cannot face discrimination when seeking housing. Rules such as pet bans or restrictions are waived for individuals with a prescription for an ESA, and they cannot be charged a pet deposit for housing their ESA with them.

Are Emotional Support Dogs Allowed on Flights? 

In December 2020, the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) introduced final revisions to its Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). The new rule, effective since January 2021, defines a service animal as a dog, regardless of breed or type, that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability, including physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disabilities. This change aligns closely with the definition used by the Department of Justice under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

The changes also clarify that emotional support animals (ESAs), comfort animals, companionship animals, animals being trained to be service animals, and species other than dogs are not considered “service animals” under the new DOT definition. Instead, airlines may recognize and accommodate emotional support animals as pets. The new policy disallows ESAs from flying starting January 11 for most airlines. Some airlines now require passengers with service dogs to complete a DOT-authorized form before travel, confirming their training, health, and certification.

About the Author: Hi, I’m Henry, a seasoned healthcare professional with extensive expertise in mental health. My profound passion lies in advocating for the significance of mental healthcare. Through my years of experience, I have dedicated myself to providing comprehensive insights into mental health topics. Let’s embark on this journey together towards mental wellness and a brighter tomorrow.

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