Our cats and dogs can be truly calming companions—here’s what you need to know about emotional support animals.

By Hannah Harper
August 28, 2019

If you’ve ever had a pet, you know how comforting its presence can be. After all, it’s hard to dwell on a tough day when a cat or dog is cuddled up beside you. “It’s true that animals act almost like a biological spa treatment,” says Aubrey H. Fine, EdD, professor emeritus and a licensed psychologist at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona. And there’s tons of research to back this up: Studies have found that being in contact with animals can reduce blood pressure, lower cortisol levels, and even release a surge of oxytocin. Because of all this, more people than ever are using their pets as emotional support animals (ESA).

RELATED: What's the Difference Between an Emotional Support Animal and a Service Dog?

Learn the Difference

“These are pets who have been deemed necessary to help support an individual’s quality of life,” says Fine. The individuals typically are struggling with mental health issues, like anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress, and find comfort in a bond with their pets. Emotional support animals are different from both therapy dogs, who go to institutions to comfort others, and service dogs, who are trained to perform tasks specific to an owner’s disability. “Emotional support animals do not have to be trained to do anything. They simply act as a security blanket,” says Renee Payne, CPDT-KA, director of training at the Good Dog Foundation.

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What You Need

If you think you could benefit from an ESA, “you have to get a letter of clearance from a physician or a mental health provider explaining that your animal provides support,” says Fine. You will need to present it when flying, or to your landlord if your housing typically doesn’t allow pets. The letter is the only documentation you need to certify your animal’s status as an ESA.

Beware of scams. A quick online search calls up tons of registration services that you can pay for, but there is actually no official registration required for an ESA. Try to avoid websites that offer online evaluations and letters, too. “It really needs to be your own mental health care professional who writes [the letter], someone who knows you and thinks you need that animal,” says Payne.

RELATED: Everything You Need to Know About Pet Fostering—and How to Get Started

Understand Your Rights

Unlike a service dog, emotional support animals aren’t allowed everywhere. For example, most restaurants and retailers will not allow your pet in—and they are not legally required to. However, you are legally allowed to fly with your ESA, thanks to the Air Carrier Access Act. Additionally, the Fair Housing Act ensures your ESA can always live with you. You cannot be charged extra, denied from application, or evicted because of your animal. These laws were put in place to make sure you are getting the emotional support needed. “For certain people, having an emotional support animal is critical for their well being,” says Fine.

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