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What is an Emotional Support Animal (ESA)?

An Emotional Support Animal (ESA) is an animal that provides a therapeutic benefit (e.g., emotional support, comfort, companionship) to a person with a mental health or psychiatric disability (such as a serious mental health condition). An ESA is not considered a Service Animal, but under U.S. law, an emotional support animal is also not considered a pet and is generally not restricted by the type of animal.1, 2 Any domesticated animal may be considered as an ESA (e.g., cats, dogs, mice, rabbits, birds, hedgehogs, rats, minipigs, ferrets, etc.) and they can be any age. However, an ESA must be able to be manageable in public and does not create a nuisance.

ESA’s do not perform specific tasks, instead, it is the presence of the animal that relieves the symptoms associated with a person’s serious mental health condition. For a person to legally have an emotional support animal (ESA), the owner must be considered to have a qualifying mental health or psychiatric disability by a licensed mental health professional (e.g., therapist, psychologist, psychiatrist, etc.), which is documented by a properly formatted prescription letter. The difference between a legitimate ESA and a pet is the letter from your licensed mental health professional.

How is an ESA different from a…

Service Animal

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service animal is defined as “a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.  The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person's disability”.3 Only a dog can (or in very specific cases a miniature horse) be considered a Service Animal.

Some examples include:

  • A Guide Dog for persons who have severe visual impairments or are blind.
  • A Hearing Dog for persons who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.
  • A Seizure Response Dog assists a person with a seizure disorder.
  • A Psychiatric Service Dog that assists people living with disabilities detect the onset of psychiatric episodes and lessen their effects.
    • To qualify for a psychiatric service dog (PSD), you’ll need a prescription from a licensed mental health professional stating that you need a dog to assist you in a major life task (e.g., provide deep pressure therapy to minimize an anxiety or panic attack or wake you from a night terror).
    • The cost of a PSD averages between $20,000-$30,000). Non-profits such as The Foundation for Service Dog Support may reduce costs based on each individual and their service to the community.

Therapy Animal

Therapy Animals are used in clinical settings to bring comfort to individuals in need. Unlike ESAs and Service Animals that are trained to help a single person (their owner), Therapy Animals work in places such as hospitals, mental health institutions, hospices, and schools to bring comfort and affection to many different people.

Pet

Pets do not necessarily provide any therapeutic benefits to their owners and anyone can own a pet regardless of whether they have a disability or mental health condition. While pets absolutely can and do benefit their owners in a variety of ways, providing such benefits is not the “job” of a pet.

How do I figure out if an ESA is right for me?

There are no hard rules about who would and would not benefit from an ESA. The primary benefit is often the simple companionship that comes from spending time with an animal. Animals can be a great comfort during times of distress and a much-needed positive presence on a difficult day. Depending on the type of animal, taking care of an animal can be a lot of work. For some, this kind of responsibility can be useful motivation to do things like adhere to routines (e.g., feeding your animal at the same time(s) every day) or get outside and exercise regularly (e.g., walking a dog).

If you think that an ESA might be right for you, start a conversation with your mental health professionals about it. Tell them why you think having an ESA would be beneficial to you specifically. Your professional may already know about ESAs and be able to tell you if they would recommend one for you, or you might need to learn more about ESAs together before they make a recommendation.

Where do ESAs come from?

ESAs can come from any of the places that pets come from. Unlike Service Animals, ESAs do not need to be raised or trained in a specific way. Emotional Support Animals can be adopted from shelters, purchased from breeders or pet stores, or obtained from anywhere else that a pet could come from – maybe your neighbor’s cat had kittens!

web illustration of cat wearing a emotional support animal vest

Can I bring an ESA with me to college?

Yes! The Fair Housing Act (FHA) says that “Housing providers cannot refuse to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services when such accommodations may be necessary to afford a person with a disability the equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.”4 This means that colleges and universities must allow ESAs in housing, even if there is a no-pet policy.

How do I bring an ESA with me to college?

Policies vary from school to school and it is important to learn about your school’s specific policy regarding ESAs. Typically, the process begins in the school’s office of disability services. The disability office will ask for documentation of a disability and a letter from a licensed mental health professional stating that an ESA is needed. Some schools may have additional requirements such as the length of time that you have been a patient of the mental health professional. The school might ask to see documentation of veterinarian visits, relevant vaccinations, or other evidence that your animal is healthy and being taken care of properly.

What else do I need to do before I bring my ESA on campus?

Emotional support animals are considered a housing accommodation, and therefore you may also need to communicate directly with your school’s housing office. You might need to communicate with other offices (e.g., campus security) and individuals (e.g., your resident advisor and/or students you live with) about the logistics of having an animal on campus. Schools have different rules about different kinds of animals – bringing a rabbit onto a campus looks very different from bringing a dog, pig, or mini horse. For example, owners of dogs may be asked to register their dog with the town/city in which the school is located.

Where can I bring my animal?

“Yes” means that you are legally allowed to bring your animal into the space, but in most cases, you will need to provide some form of documentation of your need for the accommodation (i.e., your animal). Additionally, this does not mean that you cannot be asked to remove your animal from the space if it does not comply with the rules of the space or poses health or safety risks to others.

* Contact the airline directly to ask about their ESA and pet policies.

Can I bring my animal with me... ESA Service Animal Pet
To my college or university housing? Yes Yes Only if the school allows pets
To housing with a no-pet policy? Yes Yes No
To a restaurant? Only if the restaurant allows pets Yes Only if the restaurant  allows pets
On a airplane? Depends on the airline's policy* Yes Only if the airline allows pets (rare)

Takeaways

  • Emotional support animals can provide therapeutic benefit to individuals with serious mental health conditions.
  • Emotional support animals ≠ service animals, therapy animals, or pets.
  • ESAs can benefit individuals in a variety of ways.
  • If you think an ESA would benefit you, talk with your mental health professional.
  • You will need documentation to bring an ESA places with you.
  • ESAs are allowed on college campuses with proper documentation and communication.
  • It’s always a good idea to communicate openly and ahead of time when bringing an ESA to a new place.
Yoda, an emotional support dog, sitting on a red and white striped beach towel.

Having An Emotional Support Animal:

Meet Anwyn & Yoda

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Anwyn talks about her experience with having an Emotional Support Animal (ESA), Yoda, while at college. She also talks about the difference between a Service Animal, an Emotional Support Animal and a Therapy Animal.

Comeback TV Episode 3:

Therapy Animals The Types & Your Rights

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Laura Curtis from the Worcester Recovery Center in Massachusetts tells us about how animals can help in the process of recovery and what our rights are with Emotional Support Animals, Pet Therapy Animals, and Service/Assistance Animals!