As a pet parent, I understand the emotional benefits of having a loving four-legged friend by my side. My dog, Diamond, is one of the biggest calming forces in my life. Her mellow demeanor allows me to take her to dog-friendly restaurants, on pet-sitting gigs, and more. I had always considered making her an emotional support animal (or ESA), but knowing I didn’t have a medical reason to do so kept me from taking the plunge.
However, when I was diagnosed with an iron-overload disorder called Hereditary Hemochromatosis and learned I would have to deal with needles — my greatest fear — on a frequent basis, I decided to take the steps to make Diamond an ESA so I could have her with me at my doctor’s office.
If you are thinking about making your pet an ESA, here’s what I learned when I went through the process.
The difference between an emotional support animal and a service animal
The first thing to note is that under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), ESAs are not considered service animals. While service animals are allowed everywhere, ESAs have limitations on where they can go. This is because service animals are specially trained to assist a person with a diagnosed physical or mental disability, whereas ESAs are not.
Where you can take an ESA
Based on federal regulations, there are only two places your ESA is allowed:
A home you’d like to rent
Under the Fair Housing Act, all landlords must make “reasonable accommodation” to permit dogs that are ESAs.
When you fly
Under the Air Carrier Access Act, airlines are required to provide accommodation to passengers traveling with an ESA, upon review of required ESA documents.
You can also check with your state or local government to find out their rules on allowing ESAs in public places. I did find that many doctor’s offices and medical facilities in my area allow patients to bring their ESA with them to appointments, tests, and treatments. Just call and make sure before you bring them along. (See also: 5 Surprising Ways Your Dog Can Save You Money)
Are you a candidate?
If you are dealing with high levels of stress, anxiety, or depression, and your pet helps alleviate these issues, you may be a candidate for an ESA. If you plan on taking your pet on planes or to medical facilities, make sure your pet is obedient and calm enough to be in those environments.
How to prove your pet is an ESA
Many websites sell vests, certificates, or other identification tags stating that your pet is an ESA. While having your pet wear an ESA vest can make them more easily identifiable (I have Diamond wear one for this purpose), these items don’t actually prove ESA status. The only thing you must have to verify your pet is an ESA is a letter from a licensed mental health professional dated within the last year on their letterhead stating:
- That you are under their treatment
- Your mental illness or disability
- The name of your pet
- How your pet medically alleviates your symptoms
Avoid fake document sellers
There are countless websites willing to send you a letter from a “mental health professional” for a fee. These sites make it easy to get a letter classifying your pet as an ESA. However, these letters are fake. In order for the letter to be valid, the mental health professional who writes the letter has to actually be treating you.
If you need an ESA to help you feel calm, safe, or to assist with your sense of well-being, being under the treatment of a licensed mental health professional can be beneficial in helping you overcome the difficulties you are facing.
How the process works
Go online to find a few mental health professionals you think would be a good fit for you. Email or call them to explain your situation, why you think having an ESA would benefit you, and ask if they support the use of ESAs in therapy.
Once you determine which therapist is right for you, schedule a session to start working through your anxiety, depression, or stress, and have your therapist write you an ESA letter.
Learn from my mistakes
My experience didn’t go as smoothly as I’d hoped. I contacted a few mental health professionals within my insurance network to see if they supported the use of ESAs, with no luck. Realizing I might have to use a website in order to get the letter (albeit fake) I needed in time for my first treatment, I put out a desperate plea on Nextdoor asking for recommendations for therapists who were advocates of using ESAs. Luckily, I was able to find someone with a couple days to spare before my first treatment.
The lesson here is don’t get discouraged if you are having trouble finding the right therapist. There are therapists out there that believe in the calming and healing power of pets!