There’s a lot of confusion out there about the many different categories of dogs and other animals that provide various types of help to humans. It’s especially true among those who don’t have or know anyone with any type of special animal. It’s also understandable given how many different types of animals there are and all the many names for them.
We like to clear these sorts of things up for our readers and the general public. We have an overview of the various types of assistance dogs, and we’ve also written a primer on the differences between emotional support animals, therapy animals, and assistance dogs. But now we want to delve a little deeper into emotional support animals (ESAs), which are becoming increasingly popular around the country and the world in recent years.
What Types of Animals Provide Emotional Support?
Any type of animal can—at least theoretically—serve as an emotional support animal. Typically, though, they’re the animals commonly kept as pets; dogs and cats are by far the most widely used for this purpose. However, rabbits, Guinea pigs, pigs, birds, horses, and all manner of other creatures can and sometimes are used in this capacity.
What Do ESAs Do?
As is strongly implied by their name, emotional support animals provide emotional support. They’re generally used by people with mental disabilities or disorders for companionship, comfort, affection, mood elevation, and similar benefits.
How Do You Get an Emotional Support Animal?
Many assistance dog providers also offer ESAs. To qualify, you must have a letter prescribing the animal from a psychiatrist, psychologist, licensed therapist, or other mental health professional. While there are registries and all sorts of gear sold for emotional support animals, this letter is the only identification you need to make your ESA “official.”
Are ESAs Specially Trained?
Assistance dogs—including guide, hearing, service, and psychiatric service dogs—undergo extensive training so they can perform specific tasks for people with disabilities. This training lasts, on average, for about 1.5 to 2 years. Individual dogs are also thoroughly screened and carefully selected.
This is a significant difference between assistance dogs and ESAs. The latter receive little to no special training, depending on where they’re acquired from. Generally, they are just trained like pets to be well behaved and as low-maintenance as possible.
Are Emotional Support Animals Pets?
This is another key point of distinction. Yes, emotional support animals are considered pets. Assistance dogs, on the other hand, are not; they are classified as working animals. While assistance dogs also live with their human partners, they have tasks for which they are specially trained that mitigate their partner’s disability, and they have scheduled time off just like a person would at a job. Police dogs, military dogs, and bomb- and drug-sniffing dogs are other types of working animals.
What Legal Protections Are Afforded People with ESAs?
Now for the most important point of distinction. People with assistance dogs have access rights guaranteed by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). They are allowed to bring their guide, hearing, or service dog into just about any area where they or the public are admitted. Plus, they can’t be charged more, made to wait longer or in a separate area, or otherwise treated differently because of their assistance dog.
People with emotional support animals do not have any protections or access rights under the ADA. However, those with prescribed ESAs are permitted to live with them in homes with a no-pets policy. This right is provided by the Fair Housing Act. Also, under the Air Carrier Access Act, people may bring prescribed ESAs with them in the cabin on a commercial airline flight at no extra charge.
Property owners/managers and airlines can and usually do require an official letter from your mental health professional affirming your prescription for an ESA. Before flying, contact your airline and ask about its specific requirements and procedures.
Some states afford more rights to people with emotional support animals. Check your state’s regulations if you or a loved one is getting an ESA.