Emotional support animals (ESAs) can help individuals with mental health, mental illness, or emotional issues, such as anxiety, depression, or even bipolar disorder. ESAs offer emotional support to individuals who may otherwise have a mental health condition that negatively affects them.
When traveling, if you cannot take your emotional support animal, it can be frustrating, concerning, and even worsen symptoms. While driving to your destination can help, you may need to fly. While no federal laws cover an emotional support animal, there are some guidelines to follow to ensure safety for you and your support animal.
Since the Air Carrier Access Act stopped allowing ESAs on airplanes in 2021, many owners of emotional support animals need to go through extra steps to bring their therapy animals with them while traveling. Not to worry, we will cover the steps you need to take to take your companion animal with you when flying and how to ensure vital emotional support for you and safety for your support animal.
How Can I Travel with My Emotional Support Animal?
Before January 11, 2021, airlines were required to let passengers fly with an emotional support animal in the cabin free of charge under the Air Carrier Access Act. The U.S. Department of Transportation issued new federal and state laws that allow airlines to no longer recognize emotional support animals on flights. Due to this policy change, emotional support animal owners must train their animals to be psychiatric service animals (PSAs). Owners can also obtain a legitimate ESA letter or prescription letter from a licensed mental health professional to take their emotional support animal on airplanes.
Nonetheless, it’s still better to contact your airline before booking a flight. This way, you can confirm their current policy for emotional support animals ahead of time to feel confident that you have all the required documentation and accessories needed for your trip. You can also be aware of any pet fees they may have for a support animal.
However, the federal Fair Housing Act covers emotional support animals. The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to discriminate in housing based on disability. A person with a disability may seek reasonable accommodation from a housing provider to have an equal opportunity as a non-disabled person to use and enjoy a dwelling.
For decades, courts have recognized the ability to keep an emotional support animal in housing that otherwise does not allow animals as a reasonable accommodation or charges pet fees.
You need to get a legitimate housing ESA letter to allow an emotional support animal to live with you in an apartment or college dorm that doesn’t allow pets.
It is crucial to remember that fake ESA letters circulate from time to time. If your ESA letter is unsigned by qualified mental health professionals or is not on letterhead from licensed healthcare professionals, it may not be accepted.
Before continuing, it’s important to note that emotional support animals are not service animals.
Service animals help those with physical or cognitive disabilities perform specific tasks that are usually simple for an abled person. These therapy animals generally referred to as psychiatric service dogs, offer additional support and help than emotional support animals.
For example, a service dog could greatly help someone with severe visual impairments as a guide dog.
On the other hand, emotional support animals are therapy animals that provide companionship for those suffering from mental health problems or some mental or emotional disability. Psychiatric service dogs can include an emotional support dog that responds to a panic attack by applying deep pressure therapy or as a seizure response dog.
The Americans with Disabilities Act protects service animals, making the travel laws and regulations differ between the two. ESA letter requirements are not the same as for a service animal since service dogs typically have licenses and identification that state them as such.
How to Get a Valid ESA Letter For Travel
Emotional support animals have been helping people who suffer from mental health disabilities for many years. Unlike service dogs or animals, emotional support animals don’t have full access rights to restaurants, hotels, and other public places.
As of 2021, emotional support animals are no longer protected under the Air Carrier Access Act, meaning they are no longer allowed in cabins or airplanes. The airline can also charge the owners a pet fee unless the owners have a legitimate ESA letter for flying.
If you're planning to travel soon, look into how long it takes to get an ESA letter. You’ll want to make sure you have enough time to get one before your trip. If you don’t, you may be forced to leave your pet at home. Laws changed for an ESA letter in California starting January 1, 2022. Therapists and doctors must establish a relationship with a patient for at least 30 days before they can legally sign off on an emotional support animal letter.
Airlines carriers allow travel with your emotional support animal without additional fees or costs if you have a signed ESA letter. However, you have to comply with some requirements. All airlines require your emotional support animal to be well behaved in public and calm on the plane. Most airlines require 48 hours of advance notice when traveling with an emotional support animal. Other federal and state laws may apply, so check with the individual air carrier to ensure you have all the information you need when checking in.
To obtain a legitimate ESA letter, one must first consult with a licensed healthcare professional and licensed mental health professional. To qualify for an ESA, a mental health professional must note that you suffer from a mental or emotional disability, such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or panic attacks. Working with a licensed mental health professional who believes in animal therapy and understands the regulations is essential as the ESA letter requires a specific language.
Note that it’s not necessary to register your emotional support animal. Only a signed ESA letter from a licensed mental health professional may make your pet an official emotional support animal. If an outside source is charging a pet fee or a fee to give you your letter, they are likely not a legit site. Individuals can find fake ESA letters through scams, so be careful obtaining an ESA letter from somewhere like a letter service that may charge a fee.
If you need help finding a certified ESA letter online, check out this article by the Austin Chronicle, which reviews the best emotional support animal letter services.
How to Turn Your Emotional Support Animal into a Service Animal
While getting an ESA letter is the easiest way to take your emotional support animal with you when traveling, you could also turn your emotional support animal into a psychiatric service animal. Service animals get more rights than emotional support animals, as the Air Carrier Access Act protects them.
A psychiatric service dog or animals serve similar purposes as emotional support animals, where they serve as therapy animals to help those with mental illnesses or emotional disabilities.
To qualify for a psychiatric service dog, one needs to have an emotional or mental disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act and confirmed by a licensed mental health professional. From here, your licensed mental health professional will write you a PSD letter instead of an ESA letter.
Owning an emotional support animal is a big responsibility, even under federal law. Educating yourself on the proper documentation for your emotional support animal is essential, and ensuring you have legitimate emotional support animal letters to showcase when traveling or applying for housing. These steps can help when entering public places to ensure you don’t run into trouble with your emotional support animal.
Suppose you believe you need to have a therapy animal with you at all times to benefit your mental or emotional disability. In that case, registering your emotional support animal as a psychiatric support animal may be better for you and worth the extra steps. Remember to consult with a licensed mental health professional to determine if an emotional support animal is the right course of action for you.
While individuals can have multiple emotional support animals, an emotional support letter from licensed medical professionals is needed to ensure there are no problems with emotional pet support for your mental health diagnosis.