The stigma that surrounds mental health has been abundant for quite some time. Sadly, very real conditions such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, and chronic stress have historically been dismissed throughout society. If you have ever experienced discrimination due to an emotional disability, please know that you are not alone. In recent years, Emotional Support Animals have become more widely accepted across the nation. While this is true, owners still face housing and travel obstacles regularly. Emotional Support Animals are NOT the same as Service Animals, but ESAs do provide legitimate assistance to their owners. ESAs help their owners manage unseen mental disabilities. They deserve equal housing and travel safeguards as animals who help manage visible physical disabilities. It is important to know that you have legal backing (in most instances) to get you and your ESA where you need to be. You should know your official rights as an Emotional Support Animal owner!
Do you know about the ADA?
The American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) was put in place to end discrimination against Americans with disabilities. To be protected by the ADA, an individual must have a qualifying disability. The act identifies a “disability” as:
- A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities
- A person who has a history or record of such an impairment
- Or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment
The presence of an Emotional Support Animal generally provides safety, calm, and an overall sense of well-being for their owners. Most ESAs are not specifically trained to perform regular tasks that accomplish this. They are helpful and comforting simply by being themselves and providing unconditional love. According to the ADA guidelines, these facts put ESAs under the umbrella of “assistance animals” rather than “service animals.” Public access allowances are not as inclusive as they are for Service Animals, but even so, the ADA is the backbone of ESA housing and travel permissions.
The act grants rights to individuals and their ESA, provided that owners can produce valid clinical evidence of a mental health disability. ESAs are often used as part of a medical treatment plan to help manage phobias, panic attacks, bipolar disorder, chronic stress, depression, ADHD, anxiety, PTSD, and more. Though a doctor’s verifiable ESA letter is mandatory, individuals are shielded against requirements to disclose specifics. You are not required to provide personal medical records, fill out a particular medical form, or provide notarized statements of any kind. It is essential to understand that you never have to go into detail about your mental health with a landlord or travel partner.
The Fair Housing Act provides direct protections for living accommodations.
A study done by the ASPCA revealed that more than 1 million households are re-homing their pets each year. The reasons for re-homing vary greatly, but 18% of these instances are reportedly due to housing issues. If you own an ESA or are considering the possibility, you need to know more about the Fair Housing Act (FHA). The FHA is a Federal law that allows exceptions to “no-pet” policies for individuals needing an assistance animal in their home. According to the FHA, an assistance animal is “an animal that works, provides assistance, performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or that provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified effects of a person’s disability.” Suppose you have a qualifying mental health disability. In that case, the FHA requires that landlords and leasing agents help ensure that your ESA is allowed to remain living with you for free.
Under the FHA, Emotional Support Animals are not considered typical pets.
Fees, deposits, and additional application charges associated with an ESA request are not permissible, even if they usually are required. If you have a valid ESA letter, your animal must be treated as an assistance animal. Fees are only allowed if your ESA causes property damage during the duration of your occupancy. Owners are responsible for their animals’ actions, so these charges may be deducted from a standard security deposit before any refund is issued. Please note that while there are no legal training requirements imposed on ESAs, proper obedience lessons are strongly recommended. Unwanted mannerisms cannot only damage property but may inflict harm on others and threaten the terms of your housing accommodation.
The new 2020 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) guidelines state that landlords should generally respond to an ESA request within 10 days. This guideline can help prevent the prolonged review of documentation. Requests may be submitted by an ESA owner OR someone on their behalf (such as a joint tenant or legal guardian). The request can be given orally or in writing, does not have to carry any specific jargon to be acceptable, and may be presented at ANY time. The housing provider must consider the request even if it was made after the animal is already residing in the home. We encourage notifying your landlord of the current existence of, or intention to acquire, an ESA as soon as you have your official ESA letter. This helps avoid pushback or ill feelings in the relationship. You should keep records of the request along with copies of your ESA letter in an easily accessible place. Landlords can also request copies of the animal’s veterinary records to prove appropriate immunizations/vaccinations have been administered. Support Animals are not exempt from local animal control or public health requirements.
A landlord cannot discriminate against the species, breed, size, or age of your ESA.
HUD guidance states that any “small, domesticated animal that is traditionally kept in the home for pleasure rather than for commercial purposes” qualifies as an ESA. Dogs, cats, small birds, rabbits, hamsters, gerbils, other common rodents, fish, and turtles are specifically mentioned as animals that fall into this category. Reptiles (other than turtles) and barnyard animals are a few examples given to clarify uncommon animals that would not have to be considered for accommodation. Breed restrictions cannot be placed on an ESA except in limited situations. Housing authorities can only refuse a SOLE animal that demonstrates undeniably destructive or overtly threatening behaviors. They cannot make an overarching determination for an entire breed based on an individual situation. Weight cannot be factored into determining accommodations for an ESA either, but owners must use reasonable judgment. For example, requesting to keep a dwarf pony in your studio apartment could warrant denial. Finally, stipulations cannot be placed based on age or health status unless an individual animal’s condition poses a public health or safety risk to others.
Under the FHA, colleges and universities in the United States must consider reasonable accommodations for Emotional Support Animals in dorms and student apartments.
Each college and university has its own procedures in place for housing an ESA. If you’re interested in this prospect, be sure to obtain your ESA letter, look up the school’s policy, and email or meet with the disability coordinator to help facilitate your request. Hotels and Airbnbs are not required to allow your ESA. These places are considered temporary housing and do not carry the same regulations. If you are willing to pay preset fees and sign the necessary waivers, many hotels and Airbnbs will grant permission to bring your animal.
You can obtain your ESA letter from a healthcare professional who works remotely.
Not everyone receives affordable monthly healthcare. There are many additional reasons why a person may not want to (or even be able to) seek professional help in person. Online services provide a valuable resource for those experiencing unusual or challenging circumstances preventing them from physically attending a doctor’s appointment. HUDs 2020 revisions acknowledge the legitimacy of remote (internet) services. The guidelines set for valid ESA letters are inclusive of online consultations, such as those provided by the licensed healthcare professionals who partner with American Service Pets. HUD defines a licensed healthcare professional as psychologists, psychiatrists, optometrists, physicians, physician’s assistants, nurse practitioners, nurses, social workers, and other mental health professionals. It is not true that only your primary care physician can issue an ESA letter. An authentic letter must state a connection between the individual disability and the need for an assistance animal. American Service Pets utilizes a thorough online questionnaire that allows our licensed health care professionals sufficient insight to make knowledgeable, independent ESA recommendations.
The Air Carrier Access Act currently furnishes travel protections to ESAs and their owners.
If you own an ESA and need to bring them on board a flight, it is necessary to understand the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). Did you know that most major airlines charge an average of $200 each way to travel with your animal? While some people consider these fees fair practice, owners who need their trusty companions to alleviate major travel anxiety should not! These fees can be terribly burdensome to those with financial restrictions. We understand that ESAs aren’t just furry travel companions. They are essential emotional caregivers to their owners, particularly during the stresses of flying. The Federal government originally passed the ACAA to prohibit all U.S. and foreign air carriers from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities. Thankfully, the AACA has also paved the way for airline customer service personnel to be trained to understand the needs of those with disabilities and how to meet them patiently, adequately, and with courtesy.
What about the new DOT rules for Emotional Support Animals?
Unfortunately, on December 2, 2020, the Department of Transportation (DOT) released new regulations and ACAA directives for air travel with an ESA.
*Beginning as early as January 2021, the DOT will no longer be required to recognize Emotional Support Animals. The new regulations will go into effect 30 days after the final ruling is published in the Federal Register (that date has yet to be given). If you are flying in December 2020, the following information is still applicable to your travel! We will update this information as individual airlines release official decisions surrounding the new rules. As long as they conform to DOT guidelines, air carriers may still choose to accept ESA accommodations at their discretion.*
Currently, an ESA letter (dated within the last twelve months) is the top requirement regarding paperwork, but the DOT explains that carriers may ask for additional verification documents. Such documentation is not required under the law but may be necessary if you want to fly with that airline this month.
In most cases, items such as customized ID cards and ESA vests for your animal are visual information tools that aid in identifying your companion’s relationship to your condition. It is also entirely permissible to require proof of your ESA’s vaccinations. Airlines want to ensure that rabies and distemper vaccines have been adequately administered.
Airlines are not all subject to the same policies and procedures.
Service Animals are allowed a much broader range of acceptance than Assistance Animals. Still, ESAs are given air travel allowances by many airlines. Foreign carriers operating to and from the U.S. are only required to accept dogs. Some airlines require 48-hour advance notice of travel with an ESA as well as early check-in (at least one hour prior to the general public).
Many carriers only permit common species such as dogs and cats; although, some extend their policies to include miniature horses, birds, and particular small mammals (such as bunnies) on a case by case basis. The DOT notes that airlines are never required to accept snakes, reptiles, ferrets, rodents, sugar gliders, spiders, or any animals that are prohibited from entering a foreign country.
No particular laws prevent the refusal of specific animal breeds, so this determination is up to the individual airline’s discretion. Airlines may also exclude animals based on size/weight if they are too large or heavy to accommodate in the cabin. It’s also important to note that the USDA requires your pet to be at least eight weeks old and fully weaned before traveling.
We strongly advise checking with multiple travel partners to verify their requirements before purchasing a ticket. Most major airlines have telephone, email, and chat options available.
Upon boarding, your animal must be permitted to occupy the space under the seat in front of you.
Certain small animals may be allowed to sit on your lap if it can be done so safely. Your animal cannot block a space that must remain unobstructed for safety reasons (ex. an aisle or access to an emergency exit). An airline is not required to upgrade you to a different class of service to accommodate your animal. They cannot refuse to board your animal because it makes other passengers or flight crew uncomfortable, but your animal must behave properly. An animal that engages in disruptive behavior (ex. barking or snarling, running around, or jumping onto other passengers, etc., without being provoked) will not be allowed to board. You are also responsible for any cleaning fees should your ESA relieve themselves in an inappropriate location. Many airlines do not permit ESAs to travel on flights exceeding 8 hours to help avoid any potty issues.
**More detailed, airline-specific information can also be found here.
If you have read through to this point, way to go!
We hope that this housing and travel overview has equipped you with the knowledge you need to seek the assistance you deserve. We understand that Emotional Support Animals are much more than just pets. They are companions, comforters, and confidence-builders. They are a part of the family and nobody should force you to live or travel without them.