More and more people suffering from mental health issues are turning to emotional support animals (ESAs) for help alleviating their symptoms. ESAs are often referred to as therapy animals who can provide comfort and companionship to their owners. Individuals diagnosed with a variety of mental illnesses (including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc.) have seen their symptoms improve after owning an emotional support animal. Pets have also been found to increase the overall health of their owners, making them a good addition to have in any household.
There are several laws surrounding ESA ownership that have been passed in an effort to avoid discrimination for these individuals. There are three main laws that deal with ESAs, and since they’re federal laws, they cover all 50 states in the U.S. The first is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Although service animals are specifically mentioned in the law, emotional support animals are not, which means ESA owners don’t have quite the same protections. However, the act does protect a patient from having to disclose information about their specific illness when questioned by an authority figure (such as a landlord or airline company). ESA owners are required to present a valid ESA letter from a verified doctor or mental health professional that states their need for an ESA in order to receive protection under the law.
The second law is the Fair Housing Act (FHA), which requires landlords, apartment owners, and housing communities to make “reasonable accommodations” for ESA owners who want their animal to live with them. Even if tenants are prohibited from living with pets, ESA owners are still covered. As long as the prospective tenant has a valid ESA letter, their landlord cannot discriminate against renting or selling to them, and they’re forbidden from charging fees or advance deposits because of an emotional support animal. However, it’s important to note that some states have added qualifying terms to the FHA. For example, the state of Virginia requires a patient’s ESA letter to be valid only if it comes from a mental health professional who has a “therapeutic relationship” with the patient – which would affect which ESA letters are determined to be valid. Therefore, ESA owners should look up their individual state’s laws regarding ESA ownership to make sure they have all of their bases covered.
Finally, the third act is the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), which allows ESA owners to bring their pets into airplane cabins with them, instead of having them put in the hold of the aircraft. ESA owners are also not required to pay the fees that go along with flying with a pet. Although these protections have been put into place, there have been many recent changes to the regulations that apply to flying with an emotional support animal. Each airline company has different rules, which include what types of animals are permitted to fly and the allowable size of the animal. Most importantly, every airline has different requirements for what ESA owners need to do before flying with their support animal. For example, some airlines require 48 hours’ notice, the completion of proper paperwork, or the presentation of certifications for the emotional support animal (from a mental health professional). In some instances, ESA owners are required to submit a letter from their vet or records of their animal’s vaccinations and shots. Before traveling, it’s crucial that individuals research what steps they need to take to make sure their ESA can get on board with them without any problems.
There has been quite a bit of controversy surrounding emotional support animals recently. In large part, this is due to airlines needing to crack down on people trying to fly with pets that are not authentic ESAs. People have stretched the privileges of owning an ESA by trying to fly with their “emotional support peacock”, or with animals who are not fit to be in large groups of people (which have led to dog bites and other types of incidents). Unfortunately, much of what is reported about ESAs has to do with people who are taking advantage of the system, not the ESA owners who are responsibly using their animals to support their mental health conditions. Also, since there are many ESA scam sites (or places like Amazon that sell fake ESA vests), people are able to pretend they have an emotional support animal without ever going through the proper channels. These individuals make it harder for people with a legitimate need for an ESA to get the respect and proper access they deserve.
Because individual states can have specific laws surrounding ESA ownership, it can be hard to generalize which is the most ESA-friendly state. While individuals are still protected under federal laws, emotional support animals do not have the same protections as service animals, so they’re still not allowed unlimited access in the public (such as in businesses or retail locations). However, there are many states that are still pretty pet-friendly – which means they’re great states to live in as an ESA owner.
One particularly ESA-friendly state is California, because there are plenty of outdoor spaces ideal for pets (think dog parks galore!), and many businesses are tailored to pet owners. Additionally, there are so many opportunities to spend time in nature (walks, hikes, water sports, etc.) that any ESA is sure to love. Many other states, like Texas, Oregon, and Washington, offer similar pet-friendly experiences.
The measure of an ESA-friendly state depends on the regulations laid out by the state itself, as well as how open people generally are about emotional support animals being allowed in public places. Hopefully, as awareness grows about the benefits of ESAs, more laws will be put into place to protect ESA owners’ rights and help provide better access for people with mental illness.