Emotional support animals (ESAs) provide humans with companionship, alleviate loneliness, and can even assist in the event of a mental health crisis. They can be an invaluable aid for people who suffer from anxiety, phobias, or social isolation.
However, emotional support animals do not have the same legal rights as service dogs in terms of where they are allowed with their human – and this comes down to the legal definition distinguishing the two.
“A service animal is an animal that has been trained to do specific things that alleviate or reduce the distress, impairment, or something to do with a specific person’s disability,” says Dr. Janet Hoy-Gerlach, a professor in the School of Social Justice at the University of Toledo, Ohio, who has studied the bond between people and their animals within the social work practice for over 20 years.
This includes physical, mental, intellectual, sensory, and psychiatric disabilities, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act. For instance, there are guide dogs for the blind, assistance dogs for people with traumatic brain injuries, seizure and diabetic alert dogs, and PTSD dogs.
“An emotional support animal, in contrast, is an animal that aids a person with a mental or physical disability. But the assistance is not — and this is the big difference — due to trained or taught tasks that the animal does,” explains Hoy-Gerlach. “Rather, the assistance is provided through the everyday benefits, the physical, the psychological, the social, and the emotional,” she says. “These benefits can help offset aspects of having a mental or physical disability, and actually help the person with their functioning.”
Besides the distinctions in terms of training, service dogs are legally allowed to accompany their human almost everywhere. Emotional support animals are much more limited, and where they are permitted, the animal must be well behaved, under control, and not a threat to anyone’s health or safety.
Where Can You Legally Bring Your Emotional Support Animals?
Residential Housing. “Emotional support animals are recognized only by the Fair Housing Act,” says Hoy-Gerlach. The Fair Housing Act is the federal law in the United States that recognizes emotional support animals as a disability accommodation in housing, she says. This includes an assistance animal “that provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified effects of a person’s disability,” according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“An animal that has a legally recognized status as an ESA is no longer considered a pet. A person can’t be prohibited from having the animal in no-pet housing, for example, nor can they be charged a pet fee, a pet deposit, or anything like that,” Hoy-Gerlach says.
You will need to make an official request to move in with your ESA and provide the letter from your doctor. Be aware that while you legally cannot be charged a pet deposit, you will be responsible for any damage to the residence from your emotional support dog (so housetraining and appropriate chew toys are a good idea).
Public and Common Areas in Residential Buildings. You are allowed to bring your ESA dog into the lobby, laundry room, lounge, elevator, and other public spaces in apartment buildings. However, if you do plan to bring your dog into public spaces, be responsible and train your dog. Good manners should include not jumping on people; sitting on command; not barking at people, children, or other dogs; excellent recall to come to you when called; not reacting to food in public areas; potty training; leash training; and other basic obedience. Having an ESA dog does NOT mean you can bring your dog off-leash in any of these pubic areas. Be considerate of other people, especially in tight spaces like an elevator.
Dorm Rooms and College Housing. An emotional support dog can be enormously helpful in relieving some of the extreme stress associated with going away to college, like homesickness and social pressures, as well as the stress of keeping up with academic work. Under The Fair Housing Act, an emotional support dog is allowed in dorm rooms and college housing, even if your college has a no pet policy. Expect to provide the college with official documentation from a physician, psychiatrist, social worker, or other health professional. The letter must state that the animal provides emotional support that relieves one or more of the identified symptoms or effects of your disability.
Possibly Dentist and Medical Offices. While these are certainly high-stress environments, a medical practice is not required to allow ESA dogs (though they do allow service dogs). However, many doctors understand that these appointments can be stressful; talk to your doctor’s office about their policy.
Where Emotional Support Animals Are Not Allowed
The list of the places your ESA dog will not be allowed is much longer. You will not be granted unlimited access to:
Planes. The airlines treat emotional support animals likes pets. So, if you plan on traveling with your ESA, you will have to inform the airline in advance and pay a pet fee. Dogs small enough to fit in a carrier that can be stowed under the seat are allowed to fly with you. If your dog cannot fit in a carrier, the only other option is cargo (which is controversial; do your research before).
Restaurants. Your ESA dog cannot accompany you into a restaurant like a service dog can. (In some cases, the owner of the restaurant may grant permission if they know you, and your dog is very well behaved.)
Shops. ESA dogs are not allowed in shops that are no-pet spaces. Again, if the owners know you, and your dog is very well-behaved, you may be allowed in. (And many shops are dog friendly, where all are welcome.)
Buses and Trains. Depending on the city, you may be able to bring a small dog in a carrier onboard as a pet only. If public transportation is strictly no-pet, your ESA will not be allowed on.
Classrooms. While you can live with your ESA in a college dorm, you cannot bring your dog to class. You can, however, talk to the college to see if they will make an exception.
Hotels and Airbnbs. You cannot bring your ESA dog to a hotel or Airbnb that has a no-pet policy. That doesn’t mean you can’t bring your dog, as there may be pet-friendly hotels and listings that allow dogs.
Work. An employer is not required to allow an ESA dog on premises. However, you can try and talk to your supervisor about your situation. You can also advocate for a work-from-home arrangement, particularly if your condition interferes with your ability to work or with the quality of your work, and you can demonstrate how your dog’s presence increases your productivity.
In some circumstances, you can advocate for your needs regarding your mental health. Federal buildings and business will not bend the rules for an ESA, but smaller businesses and services may make an exception.
What You Need to Bring Your Emotional Support Animal to Permitted Areas
While emotional service animals do not require certification or professional training (neither do service dogs), you will need documentation for your ESA for certain situations. That documentation is a letter written by the person’s health or mental health care provider, whether that’s a therapist or a primary care doctor, “who is knowledgeable about the person’s condition, the ways that condition affects the person, and how the benefits of having an emotional support animal would be able to offset the impairing aspects of that condition,” says Hoy-Gerlach.
Unfortunately, says Hoy-Gerlach, there are online business offering “assessments,” which are typically only five-minute surveys. “And that’s really unfortunate and predatory because a lot of these services charge of fair amount of money. It should be a service that people get through regular health care channels, where they don’t have to pay hundreds of dollars.”
Plus, there are great benefits to actually conferring with a healthcare provider who knows your history and the details of your condition and can recommend ways an ESA dog can help. These providers can also help you determine if you are equipped to care for your ESA, help you find resources for that care, and discuss how your ESA can help in a crisis.
The ESA letter you supply will be examined and should include specifics, including your doctor’s licensing information. It should state that you have a condition that makes specific activities difficult, and your functioning in these instances will be aided by an emotional support animal.