It’s no secret that animals can lift your spirits — aside from y’know, personal experience, studies even show this. But if you have a qualifying mental or emotional disorder, the therapeutic bennies of having a qualified fur baby by your side can help even more.
Of course, plain old pets aren’t always permitted in certain communities, workplaces, or on planes, so you’ll have to make sure you qualify your emotional support animal, also called comfort animals, assistance animals, or ESA, to accompany you wherever you may want to go together.
Here are some tips to help you decide on how to get a qualifying animal (or see if an animal you already own qualifies) and how to make sure your ESA gets the special treatment it deserves.
1. Understand the difference between service animals and emotional support animals.
Service animals must undergo rigorous training for a specific disability and are welcome at any and all public locations, while an ESA is not, explains Prairie Conlon, Clinical Director of CertaPet. Service animals are specially trained in areas such as picking items up for someone in a wheelchair or alerting someone with hearing loss when someone is approaching them from behind, according to the ADA. With a trained service dog, people may only ask two questions, per the ADA.
(1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform? Staff are not allowed to request any documentation for the dog, require that the dog demonstrate its task, or inquire about the nature of the person’s disability.
On the other hand, an emotional support animal is meant to “provide comfort and calming to their handler,” as Nicole Ellis, certified dog trainer and pet expert with Rover, explains. These animals do not perform a task and are not covered under the ADA and are not allowed public access to restaurants and stores the same way service animals are.
Please also keep in mind, it’s a felony to fake a dog as a service dog and punishable by a fine and jail time in some states, Ellis adds. Not to mention, it’s just kinda shitty. There are more and more pet-friendly places opening up if you want to take your fur baby with you out and about that don’t involve defrauding important protections for differently abled folx.
2. Know that there are no official licensing or governing places to get an official “certificate” to have an emotional support animal.
The best documentation here usually comes from a doctor (see #3), so beware of the many for-profit sites that come up on the first Google result. “They are all scams,” explains Abby Violin, of Opening Doors LLC, a legal and consulting firm specializing in animal accommodation laws. “There are no legally meaningful/recognizable certifications or registration lists for service or assistance animals (including ESAs). Anyone who says otherwise is selling you something you don’t need.” While this is bad news for me and the nice laminated card I got for $80 for my pup, it’s good for you to know.
Violin also points to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s own info on assistance animals, where on page 11 of the PDF, you’ll see that the online sites selling certificates are usually not sufficient evidence for an assistance animal, whereas documentation from a licensed health professional is usually safer. Violin also points to the ADA’s site where question 17 backs up the fact that sites selling certificates “do not convey any rights under the ADA.”
3. See your mental healthcare provider or physician for an official diagnosis.
If you have severe anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or another emotional or…