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Emotional Support Dogs (And Other Emotional Support Animals)

Read Time 5 Minutes

Service dogs have been around for over a century (or much longer than that, if you count “unofficial” service dogs that have been trained by individuals since early domestication days); but the concept of Emotional Support Animals is much more recent, having come into its own with the movement to eliminate mental-illness-related stigma. And overall public approval of ESAs still has some distance to go—partly because people get confused over the differences between trained service animal, Emotional Support Animal, and ordinary pet.

Service Dog or Emotional Support Animal?

In one sense, every owned-and-loved animal is an emotional support animal: just having a pet comes with permission to relax and be yourself. An official Emotional Support Animal, however, has a few more hoops to jump through—though not nearly as many as official service animals, with which ESAs are often confused.

Service Dog/Service AnimalEmotional Support Animal
Generally must be a dog, although some jurisdictions allow miniature horses and even such outliers as monkeysCan be any domestic species (cat lovers rejoice!)
Can go anywhere its handler/assisted person goes, including public buildings and public transportationIs exempt from “no pets” rules only in places essential for its owner to go, especially their permanent address
Has extensive training to perform specific duties, ignore distractions, and display excellent public mannersRarely needs more training than any ordinary pet

One major thing service dogs and ESAs have in common is that to qualify for one, you need a psychiatrist or other doctor to verify you need one. Request a formal prescription-letter before you choose your Emotional Support Animal or designate an existing pet as one.

Your Rights

Sad but true, emotional attachment to your pet isn’t enough to qualify it for ESA status. You need an official diagnosis of mental or emotional disability, plus a doctor’s professional opinion that the animal’s presence is essential to your everyday functionality. A person with severe depression, for example, might be literally unable to make themselves get out of bed, or even retain the will to live, without being motivated by the animal’s needs. Or someone with anxiety disorder may rely on an animal to provide calming influence when panic attacks threaten.

Although you can’t take your ESA just anywhere (restaurant owners can refuse your dog entry even if you officially need her within reach while eating at home), you have a right to:

  • Move the animal into any residence with you, even a “No Pets Allowed” apartment
  • Have any lease-required pet deposits waived
  • Receive exemptions to other restrictions such as maximum weight (nonetheless, if your ESA is a Clydesdale horse, don’t count on being approved for a second-floor studio apartment)
  • Bring your animal through common areas, including lobbies and elevators, in apartment settings

Away from home, especially in “probably essential” settings such as airplanes and emergency shelters, the rules are more iffy. Depending on the situation and the mood of the person in charge, you may be granted permission to bring in your Emotional Support Animal where pets in general are banned. Or you may not. Check in advance, allowing plenty of time to make a Plan B if needed. (In the case of the emergency shelter, where conditions are typically crowded and semi-chaotic, both you and the animal are better off at a pet-friendly hotel anyway.)

Your Responsibilities

No matter what, do not try to evade no-pet regulations by claiming your animal as an ESA without proper credentials. At best, being found out means eviction, a stressful scene, and a blot on the reputation of legitimate ESAs. At worst, you risk prosecution for criminal fraud.

Don’t think, either, that ESA status is license to let your cat climb into the next apartment’s bedroom window at 2 a.m., or to let your dog knock people into the communal swimming pool. While Emotional Support Animals don’t officially require training, you owe it to your neighbors, your own peace of mind, and the overall reputation of ESAs to keep your animal reasonably well-behaved. And, in common areas, to keep appropriate social distance from people with allergies or fear of animals.

As a rule, it’s advisable to choose a pet-friendly residence to begin with: you don’t gain anything by demanding a no-pets apartment just to assert your ESA rights. If the only affordable place has a general no-animals rule, that’s one thing: but in most cases, both you and the animal will be happier where pets are already welcome. Service provider, ESA, or ordinary pet, animals also deserve a home environment free of hostility and stress!

See also: BridgingApps recommendations for animal-, dog-, and pet-related apps

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