An emotional support animal (ESA) is a type of assistance animal that alleviates a symptom or effect of a person's disability. An emotional support animal is not a pet and is generally not restricted by species.
An emotional support animal differs from a service animal. Service animals are trained to perform specific tasks (such as helping a blind person navigate), while emotional support animals receive no specific training, nor even, necessarily, any training at all. (It therefore stands that in the setting of mental illness, whether or not the animal is a "service animal" vs. an emotional support animal would hinge on whether or not it is formally trained to do something specific to mitigate the mental illness.) Any animal that provides support, well-being, comfort, or aid, to an individual through companionship, unconditional positive regard, and affection may be regarded as an emotional support animal.
In the U.S., people with emotional or mental disabilities can be exempted from certain federal housing and travel rules if they own an emotional support animal. To receive that exemption, they must meet the federal definition of disabled, and they must present a letter from a certified healthcare provider, stating that the animal provides emotional support that alleviates one or more of the symptoms or effects of the disability.
Emotional support animals are typically cats and dogs, but may be members of other animal species. In relation to whether or not an emotional support animal should be allowed in a rental property, it is thus necessary to perform an individualized assessment of the specific assistance animal to determine if it poses a direct threat of harm or would cause substantial property damage, and not to assume that an animal is excluded based upon breed or species. Although a wild or exotic animal that poses an increase risk of disease or potential attack upon other people may potentially be excluded, courts have recognized species including guinea pigs and miniature horses as emotional support animals.
Laws and regulations that allow service animals to be taken into businesses or onto aircraft may give the service provider discretion to deny admission to unusual service animals. For example, under the Air Carrier Access Act, airlines are never required to accommodate unusual animals such as ferrets, rodents, snakes and other reptiles, or spiders within the passenger cabin of an airplane.
In 2018, Delta Air Lines banned pit bulls and similar breeds of dogs from the passenger compartment of their aircraft as emotional support animals, after a pit bull traveling as an emotional support animal bit two employees.
Most airlines will allow emotional support animals, with proper documentation from a veterinarian and/or mental health counselor, and small animals such as cats and dogs can be held on the passenger's lap during the flight.
There is no requirement under federal law for emotional support animals to wear a tag, harness, or clothing of any type indicating they are emotional support animals.
Emotional support animals do not need to have any special training.
There are no training requirements for emotional support animals. Emotional support animals typically have no training beyond what would be expected for the same type of animal. Emotional support animals need not perform any tasks other than what a pet of the same species would perform, and may display unwanted behaviors, such as defecating or urinating in inappropriate places, growling and barking at people, or biting them.
Both poorly trained emotional support animals and poorly trained pets that are being fraudulently passed off as emotional support animals represent a threat to the health, safety, and function of both people and trained service animals.
To qualify for an emotional support animal in the US, its owner must have an emotional or mental disability that is certified by a mental health professional such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or other licensed mental health care provider. These may be invisible disabilities.
The owner's mental health impairment must be substantial enough to produce disability, rather than discomfort or a desire to have a pet. Furthermore, for the provider to certify the animal, non-fraudulently, the emotional support animal's presence must provide a significant benefit, that makes the difference between the person functioning adequately and not.
An emotional support animal letter, or an ESA letter, is a document that qualifies people to be accompanied by a support animal in contexts in which pets might not be permitted, such as in rental housing or mass transportation. The letter must be issued by a psychiatrist, qualified mental health professional, or physician. The professional who issues an ESA letter need not be the recipient's primary care physician, and some doctors may refer patients who are seeking an ESA to psychologists or other professionals.
Under US Department of Transportation, rules, the doctor or mental health professional who issues the letter must be currently providing treatment to the passenger. Airlines are not obligated to accept certificates or letters that are more than one year old, and may require that the certification be provided on the letterhead of a licensed mental health professional or doctor who is specifically treating the passenger's mental or emotional disability.
ESA owners are currently permitted to have their animals with them on commercial flights in the US, with the proper papers saying they are under the care.
While there do not seem to be any cases dealing with the issue of multiple emotional support animals, the basic requirements for this accommodation would be the same. Thus, if a disabled person claimed to need multiple emotional support animals, he or she would need documentation supporting this claim from his or her psychologist or other licensed healthcare professional. The practitioner would need to provide documentation that each support animal alleviated some symptom of the disability.
As of 2018, Delta Air Lines limits free travel for emotional support animals to one animal per ticketed passenger.
The ability to avoid extra costs, such as paying damage deposits for pets in a rental apartment or extra baggage fees for taking an animal on an airplane, has resulted in some people misrepresenting their pets as ESAs. Following a 2018 incident in which a woman tried to board a flight with her peacock, airlines have tightened their requirements for flying with an ESA.
In some US states, providing a letter, registry, or certificate to a person who is not disabled is a crime. Many states have made it a criminal misdemeanor to make false claims stating that their animal is an assistance animal or to say they are a handler training an assistance animal. States that have passed laws criminalizing the misrepresentation of service and assistance animals include Alabama, Arizona,California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Washington State.