What Is an Emotional Support Animal? Your Rights as an ESA Owner

sad woman with short hair holding a holland lop rabbit

It’s common on college campuses to have pet therapy available during finals week. And it makes sense; who doesn’t feel better after seeing an emotional support animal?

Having an emotional support animal of your own can make a huge difference in your mental health. However, there’s a lot of misinformation out there about what an emotional support animal is, how you get one, and what your rights are once you have one. Here’s a beginner’s guide on how to register an animal as an emotional support animal.

What Is an Emotional Support Animal?

So first things first; what is an emotional support animal? How does it differ from a service animal?

Service animals are rigorously trained dogs or miniature horses (yes, you heard me right: miniature horses) that perform specific tasks for a person with a disability. Here are the specific types of service dogs out there:

  • Allergy detection dogs
  • Autism service dogs
  • Diabetic alert dogs
  • Guide dogs
  • Hearing dogs
  • Mobility assistance dogs
  • Psychiatric service dogs
  • Seizure alert dogs

These dogs cost thousands upon thousands of dollars. They generally come from a lineage of dogs specifically bred to be service animals. They go through extensive training, and a lot of dogs fail their final tests. A service dog is an expensive, highly trained piece of medical equipment. That is why they have lots of rights, such as the ability to enter pet-restrictive buildings.

Emotional support animals are no less important, but they require 0 training. Any adopted pet can become an ESA. As they have no training, the rights that come with having an ESA are significantly limited.

Landlord Rights: ESA Legal Rights

However, having an ESA does not come without some rights. While your boss doesn’t need to let you bring them to work and you can’t bring them into restaurants, you do get housing rights. As long as the pet is not aggressive or pose a threat to other people or property, landlords need to let you have them, even if they don’t normally allow pets. They also cannot charge you pet rent. However, if you have multiple animals, they can charge rent for those other animals.


How to Register an Animal as an Emotional Support Animal

So you’ve decided that an emotional support animal would increase your quality of life. How do you get one?

No matter how many Google searches you do or pop-up ads you see about registering your pet as an ESA online, you need to know that every single one of these is a scam. You cannot just register your pet online and genuinely have an ESA. Doing so is an abuse of the system, and doesn’t even give you true documentation required to have an ESA.

So if you can’t get the documentation online, where do you go?

How to Get an Emotional Support Animal Letter

The only way to get your pet certified as an ESA is by getting a letter for emotional support animals through your doctor. The letter explains your diagnosis and why having an ESA will help you in your recovery or symptom management.

This doctor will generally be whoever is managing your diagnosis and medication. Most often, this will be a psychiatrist, nurse practitioner, and sometimes a therapist.

An emotional support animal is an important part of symptom management. And for there to be symptom management, there needs to be a diagnosis. You cannot just get an ESA because you want one. You need to have a mental health diagnosis that requires treatment in order to receive one.

Common Questions About ESAs

There’s a lot of misinformation and misconceptions surrounding emotional support animals. Let’s take a look at some of the most common questions surrounding the process of getting an ESA.

  • What is an emotional support animal? An ESA is any animal that your doctor gives you a prescribing letter for explaining how that animal will help you manage your mental health.
  • What are the best emotional support dogs to get? The best dog for emotional support depends on how you need to be supported. Does exercise help you release anxiety? Then get a high energy dog, like a husky! Do you just want someone to snuggle with when you’re depressed? Pug emotional support dogs might be the way to go.
  • Can a cat be an emotional support animal? Yes, they can! You can certainly have an emotional support cat. Cats can be a great choice for someone who doesn’t have the emotional or physical energy to care for a dog. Cats are relatively low-maintenance, but can still give you the benefits of an ESA. The process of how to register a cat as an emotional support animal is the same as any other ESA.
  • Can a rabbit be an emotional support animal? Absolutely! My psychiatrist wrote me an emotional support animal letter for my first rabbit, Pancake. He lived on campus with me during my last two years of college. He not only helped improve my mental health, but he helped others on campus as well.
Here’s Pancake in my on-campus apartment! He was a campus favorite!

Why Do ESAs Work?

As someone who’s had multiple emotional support animals, I can attest to the power of having one. Having an animal to snuggle always makes a difference when keeping depression at bay.

But it’s more than that, really. It’s not just being around a cute animal and petting them. The act of taking care of another living creature reminds you to take care of yourself.

Sometimes, you may feel like staying in bed all day. But your dog certainly won’t let you. It’s a good use of the Opposite Action DBT technique. And I know I can’t let anything bad happen to me, because my animals are depending on me. It gives me a sense of purpose when I don’t feel motivated to live for myself.

However, an ESA won’t fix everything. If you currently struggle to care for yourself, adding another living being to the mix might be too much. Make sure you are emotionally and physically ready to take on the responsibility of caring for another living creature. Until then, go visit your friends’ pets and get some animal TLC without the fiscal, emotional, or physical responsibility.

Emotional support animals can change your life. Talk with your practitioner to see if adopting one is the right move for you.


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