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Any laws listed in this post apply to the U.S.A. only. If you are not from the U.S., check your local ordinances to see if you are eligible for an Emotional Support Animal (or however your country may identify them).
Have you met the latest addition to our little family? Or followed him on Instagram (@mrschanandlerdog)? My one-year-old Border Retriever Chandler is not only a perfect, zoomy ball of fluff with the world’s floppiest tongue. He’s also a superhero, because he’s my Emotional Support Animal – or ESA for short.
If you’re anything like me, what you know about ESAs probably boils down to that one friend in college who pretended to have anxiety so she could sneak a dog into her dorm room. Unfortunately, the rules about ESAs – especially on college campuses – have tightened quite a bit thanks to those who give the animals a bad rep.
While it’s true that an ESA does not require special training, it’s NOT true that ESAs are “fake service animals,” or simply an excuse for letting dogs go where they may not have been allowed otherwise. ESA dogs are pets, but they’re also companions, therapists and coping tools. For those of us with mental illness, or another medical condition that makes certain aspects of life psychologically difficult, ESAs can be literally life-changing.
Unlike a service dog, Chandler cannot open doors, flip light switches or fetch items from the fridge for me. He does, however, have an intuitive sense about people. When I am crying, he climbs in my lap and licks my face until I feel better. When I’ve hurt myself, he licks my wounds. Even though we’re completely different species, Chandler doesn’t see that. Instead, he sees a friend and a companion whom he can support simply by being himself.
As someone with a mental illness, you may have toyed around with getting an ESA before. Maybe your apartment does not allow pets, but you’ve suspected a pet could serve as a positive distraction from the stressors in your life. Or, perhaps you already have an animal who serves as emotional support, but you want to make it official. You may never even have heard of an ESA before, but thought that you or someone else you love could benefit.
As I went through the process of adopting my ESA, I found it difficult to find reputable sources of information. In fact, it was near impossible to find a tutorial that didn’t come from a fake ESA certification website! But now that Chandler is home – and making me smile every day – I’ve become an expert on navigating the ESA system. And, because I don’t want the process to be as confusing for you as it was for me, I’m here to share all the lessons I learned along the way!
Who knows? By this time next week, you could be cuddling wth an ESA of your very own 😉
What Is An ESA?
As mentioned previously, ESA stands for “Emotional Support Animal.” There are many things an ESA is, but it’s also important to note the many things an ESA is NOT. For example, an ESA is not….
- A service animal
- A psychiatric service animal
- A “fake” term
First, let’s note the differences between an ESA and a service animal. Like service animals, ESAs serve people with disabilities that impair their everyday life. However, unlike an ESA, service animals receive training to do special tasks the disabled owner would not be able to do on their own otherwise. Similarly, a psychiatric service animal does the same, but specifically for a person whose disability is psychiatric in nature.
An ESA does not require special training, does not require a vest identifying it as an ESA and therefore cannot enter public places where service dogs are allowed (assuming pets aren’t allowed there, either!). But an ESA is also not “fake.” While many people abuse the privileges of the ESA designation, I’d venture that more people out there could benefit from an ESA than are gaming the system to get a “fake” support animal.
Though not as many as service animals, ESAs do have some special rights. For example, your place of residence must allow your ESA to reside with you – even if there is a “no pet policy” in place. Your landlord also cannot charge you pet fees or pet rent, nor can they subject your ESA to size, weight or breed restrictions. So, if your ESA is a pit bull and your apartment has banned pit bulls, they must still require your ESA to live on the premises – assuming you can provide the proper documentation. (More on that next!)
How To Get An ESA
So, you think you could benefit from an ESA and you’re on board with getting one. Now what?
Not so fast! Don’t adopt an ESA dog without first visiting your mental health care provider. This can be any licensed medical provider with knowledge of your mental health situation: your primary care doctor, a nurse practitioner, a psychiatrist, a therapist (LICSW or LPC) or another mental health professional. They will need to write you a letter of prescription guaranteeing your right to an ESA.
In order to claim your right to an ESA, your mental health provider must confirm you have a disability that interferes with your everyday life and that the ESA has been prescribed to alleviate some symptom of that disability. If you aren’t already seeing a mental health provider, I recommend you seek out a professional with knowledge of the ESA system. A provider who has helped a patient obtain an ESA in the past will know exactly what they need to do, allowing you to avoid any snags along the way.
Once your mental health provider has evaluated your condition and determined that an ESA will benefit your health and well-being, they must write you a letter prescribing the ESA as part of a coordinated treatment plan. If your doctor or therapist has never done this before, please direct them to a sample letter – such as this one – for an example of what they must write. Once you have your letter, neither landlords nor airlines can challenge your right to be accompanied by your ESA. You can also use the letter to get reasonable accommodations at work – for example, if you want your ESA to come with you to the office.
Your landlord may also give you a form to fill out in addition to or in place of a letter. (This was the route I took – since I did not plan to bring Chandler on an airplane and we were in a rush to adopt him, I only had my therapist fill out my landlord’s form, rather than write a full ESA letter.) This letter typically asks your mental healthcare provider to confirm your disability and that the disability interferes with your daily functioning. Your landlord can use this paperwork to confirm your right to an ESA, but not to contact you or your provider about sensitive medical information.
What Are My Rights?
As long as you can provide official documentation – a letter, a form or otherwise – that you have been prescribed an ESA, you have the legal right to own your ESA, as well as a few other rights and protections you should know about. Additionally, your landlord retains some rights, so it’s imperative to understand where the line between your rights and your landlord’s rights is drawn, in order to make the best case for yourself and your ESA in the event of a complaint.
You retain the right to house your ESA under your roof, regardless of your landlord’s “pet policy.” As mentioned previously, your landlord cannot subject you to any kind of pet fee, nor size, weight, breed or species restrictions. Even if your apartment only allows cats under 15 lbs, your 45 lb Doberman is still allowed to live with you according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as the Fair Housing Act. They can, however, hold you liable and charge you for any damages your animal does to the unit while living there.
Your landlord is allowed to confirm only two things: first, that you have a disability (visible or invisible) that impacts your daily functioning and second, that your ESA relieves some symptom or challenge of that disability. They may NOT request any further medical information from you or your provider. You are NOT legally required to disclose your diagnosis or treatment plan, but your landlord can request that your provider sign a form or that you provide a copy of a verifiable prescription letter for an ESA.
Your landlord cannot deny your request for an ESA simply because their insurance does not cover pets. Additionally, they may not require your ESA to have any special training or wear any type of identification marking it as an ESA. (However, in my experience, getting your animal a tag or vest that says ESA helps curb some of the questions and complaints by cranky neighbors.)
The ADA and FHA do protect many of your individual rights, but your landlord does retain a few key provisions under these laws as well. Those provisions are:
- The right to deny your ESA under certain conditions. Rest assured, there are very few cases when someone can deny a disabled person a reasonable accommodation, such as an ESA. These cases include buildings with four or fewer units (where the landlord occupies one unit), single-family housing sold or rented without a real estate agent, hotels and motels (which are not considered dwellings under the FHA) and private clubs.
- The right to evict you if your animal is not under your control. You must have command over your ESA at all times. If your dog is unruly or aggressive and cannot be brought under your control, you lose your guaranteed right to housing and may be evicted. Therefore, although special training is not required for an ESA designation, I recommend strengthening your animal’s basic obedience skills to lower the odds your ESA falls subject to complaint by neighbors.
- The right to charge you for damages done by your ESA. As mentioned previously, your landlord cannot charge you pet rent or fees, but can charge you for damages to the property done by your ESA. Legally, your ESA must also be housebroken, minimizing the potential for damage. Additional training may prevent your animal from chewing, scratching or soiling carpet, walls and other parts of your dwelling.
What If My Rights Are Violated?
You’ve gotten your ESA prescription letter. You’ve adopted an ESA. And your landlord or flight won’t accept your documentation – or your neighbors have complained. What are your next steps? Well….
- Identify your ESA. Landlords cannot require ESAs to wear identification. However, if your neighbors are challenging your right to an ESA, putting a tag or vest on your animal may help quiet these complaints. I bought Chandler’s ESA tag from Amazon for $10. The tag reads “protected by federal law,” which we’ve found is enough to dissuade our neighbors from raising too many uncomfortable questions about our ESA dog.
- Check legal precedent. Most ESA cases protect the right to “reasonable accommodation” under the ADA. Size, weight and breed restrictions, no-pet policies and college dorms have all been challenged successfully in the court. Sometimes, all it takes to resolve a complaint is to cite one of these cases. Most landlords, upon hearing mention of a court case, can be scared into compliance with the law.
- File a housing complaint. Complaints regarding landlords who refuse to recognize your right to an ESA when there is clear documentation of your disability fall under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Click here to file a formal complaint against your landlord – or to bookmark this page just in case.
- File an airline complaint. Airlines may try to refuse passengers who bring an ESA on-board, regardless of their documentation. Discrimination and disability complaints directed at airlines can be filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation – click here to file a complaint.