How do You Qualify for an Emotional Support Animal?

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An emotional support animal (ESA) contributes to psychological well-being and alleviates symptoms in a person with serious mental issues. Though a scientific community may argue whether animals have considerable positive effect on people who have serious issues, it is doubtless that dogs help reduce stress levels and cope with anxiety.

One can’t have a legitimate ESA with no clear medical reason. It should be prescribed to you by a licensed mental health professional. A person with an intellectual or other mental impairment can get an ESA letter — a document that confirms one’s need in an emotional support animal. If someone is seeing a therapist consistently, an ESA letter should be provided for them at no cost.

Are Emotional Support Animals Considered Service Animals?

So how to distinguish whether some animal is a service animal? First of all, the very definition of service animal is sometimes misinterpreted. Emotional support animals are not considered service animals under the ADA. Therefore, these categories do not share the same rights. According to the ADA definition, a service animal is a dog, or sometimes a miniature horse, who is trained to perform specific tasks for the handler. Service animals category incorporates:

  • animals trained to help a blind person walk safely —a guide dog or miniature horse;
  • dogs trained to identify sounds who help people with hearing impairment;
  • large dogs trained to assist people who can’t walk independently;
  • medical response dogs who can detect the onset of their handler’s medical condition;
  • psychiatric service animals trained to assist people with autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, or other serious mental health issues;
  • seizure response dogs, who are similar to medical response dogs —they are trained to alert their handler to epileptic seizure onset.

All these categories need special training and certification. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an individual with a disability can bring their service animal to all public premises. Since ESAs are not expected to undergo special training, they are not covered by the ADA.

At the same time, the Department of Justice tries to promote equality for all people. For example, the Fair Housing Act protects individuals with disabilities from being discriminated. This regulation permits residents to keep both service animals and emotional support animals in buildings that do not normally accept pets. However, some federal laws may include additional requirements or exceptions.

Some situations are complicated. Emotional support animals could accompany their handlers during air travel until recently. However, in 2020 the U.S. Department of Transportation declared the revision of the Air Carrier Access Act. It happened due to the fact that some individuals attempted to take advantage of the law and pass their pets off as ESAs. According to this revision, it is no longer compulsory for airlines to allow ESAs on board with their owners.

Can any Kind of Animal be a Service Animal?

In accordance with the ADA revision in 2011, namely title II and title III, only service dogs trained to do work are now recognized as service animals. However, the revised ADA also includes a specific condition concerning miniature horses performing certain tasks for people with disabilities. These animals have access to public areas along with other service animals. Based on the miniature horse’s type, size, and weight, the animal may or may not be permitted to enter the public areas. It must be assessed whether the service animal complies with the established rules and safety requirements.

In some states, a service animal category also encompasses pigs and capuchin monkeys. For instance, in Montana, any animal may be a legitimate service animal if it is properly prepared for its special job.

If your wish your animal to be legally qualified as a service animal, it needs to be specially prepared to assist a person with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, neurological, or cognitive impairment.

How to Train an Animal to Work or Perform Tasks?

Any service animal should be specially trained by a licensed organization or an authorized trainer. They teach an animal a particular skill or a set of skills that are needed to aid someone who has a specific disability. A standard training program implies teaching public access skills, so that service animals could behave well in places of public accommodation and remain under full control of the owner in all possible situations, with all members of the public.    

Professional service dog trainers comply with the high standards for the service animals they train. The cost of a legitimate service dog that is individually trained is sometimes more than $25,000. Sometimes organizations provide disabled individuals with service animals free of charge or offer financial backing to those who can’t afford to have a service animal.

Unfortunately, a lot of people abuse the state and local laws by mispresenting pets as service animals. Fake service animals negatively impact the reputation of legitimate service dog owners who struggle with real health issues and depend on these helpers. The fake service dogs epidemic confuses the authorities. Besides, a poorly-trained service dog may pose a threat to citizens and to real service dogs.

Thankfully, the government continues to fight fake service animals and introduces laws and measures to help effectively regulate the existing problem. The misuse of service dogs is a serious offense and people who engage in dishonest behavior are subject to fines and misdemeanor charges.

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