Are Emotional Support Animals Protected?

Emotional support animals (ESAs) have become increasingly popular in recent years as a therapeutic tool for people with mental health conditions. However, there is often confusion around the legal rights and protections afforded to ESAs compared to service animals. This article will examine the key laws and regulations governing ESAs to provide clarity on where they are protected and their limitations under the law.

What are Emotional Support Animals?

An emotional support animal (ESA) is a companion animal that provides therapeutic benefits to a person with a mental or psychiatric disability. ESAs are commonly dogs or cats, but may include other animals.

Unlike service animals, ESAs are not trained to perform specific tasks assisting their handlers. Their role is to provide comfort through companionship and affection. According to the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI), studies have shown ESAs can help reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other conditions.

To be prescribed an ESA, a person must have a letter from a licensed mental health professional stating the animal provides emotional support that alleviates at least one symptom of their disability. ESAs only qualify as such if prescribed by a mental health provider.

Are ESAs Considered Service Animals Under the ADA?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides protections and rights to people with disabilities, including allowing service animals in public places. However, ESAs are not considered service animals under the ADA.

The ADA defines service animals as dogs (or miniature horses) individually trained to perform specific tasks directly related to a person’s disability. Common tasks include guiding people who are visually impaired, alerting people who are deaf, pulling wheelchairs, alerting to impending seizures, or calming a person with PTSD during an anxiety attack.

Since ESAs are not trained to perform particular disability-related tasks, they do not meet the ADA’s definition of service animals. Therefore, ESAs are not granted public access rights under the ADA.

ESA Housing Rights Under Fair Housing Act

While the ADA does not extend to ESAs, these animals are protected under the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA).

The FHA requires housing providers to make “reasonable accommodations” for tenants with disabilities. This includes waiving “no pets” policies for ESAs if related to a tenant’s disability and its effects.

For example, someone with an anxiety disorder may get an ESA letter from their psychiatrist or therapist recommending a cat to help alleviate their anxiety symptoms. In this case, their landlord or housing provider must allow the ESA cat, even if they have a no-pet policy.

To request an ESA accommodation, tenants need to submit:

  • A letter from a licensed mental health professional stating the ESA alleviates symptoms of their disability (dated within the past year)
  • Proof they have a disability as defined by the FHA (e.g. anxiety disorder diagnosis)

The FHA protects tenants with ESAs from being denied housing, being charged extra fees, or having other restrictions imposed on the animal. Landlords can still enforce rules regarding damage, noise, waste removal, and ensuring the animal does not threaten others’ health/safety.

Flying with an ESA Under the Air Carrier Access Act

The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) is a federal law protecting air travelers with disabilities. It requires airlines to allow both service animals and ESAs to accompany their handlers in the cabin during flights.

To travel with an ESA, passengers need to provide:

  • An ESA letter from a licensed mental health professional (dated within past year)
  • Notification of the ESA to the airline 48 hours before flying

Airlines cannot charge fees for ESAs. The animal must be well-behaved and under the handler’s control at all times. Airlines can still refuse transport of ESAs that exhibit aggressive behavior posing a direct threat to others.

Although the ACAA grants flying rights to ESAs, some airlines have imposed tighter restrictions around them recently. This is due to growing instances of passengers fraudulently passing pets off as ESAs to avoid fees and transport animals in the cabin. As a result, many airlines now require advanced notice and ESA documentation.

Limitations of ESA Status

While ESAs have protections under housing and air travel laws, their rights are relatively limited compared to service animals trained to perform disability-related tasks. Key limitations to highlight include:

  • No public access – Unlike service dogs, ESAs can legally be refused entry to public places like restaurants, stores, hospitals, etc.
  • No “professional training” standard – There are no professional standards or specialized training required for ESAs like there is for service animals. ESAs also do not have to be visibly identified in public.
  • Species restrictions – Some housing providers only have to allow common household animals as ESAs, such as cats and dogs. More “exotic” species may be denied.
  • Size limitations – Housing providers can impose reasonable size/weight limits on ESAs depending on the dwelling. Airlines also restrict “unusual” ESA species for cabin transport.
  • Fees – Pet fees and deposits may still apply to ESAs in properties that normally charge for pets. The exception is the monthly rent itself – that must remain the same with or without an ESA.

Overall, while ESAs do not enjoy the same comprehensive rights as service dogs trained to perform specific tasks, they do have protections under housing and air carrier laws. This allows people with mental health disabilities to have their ESAs provide critical comfort and support in their home and during air travel. However, ESAs cannot accompany their owners everywhere in public like service animals can.

Pennsylvania State Laws Regarding ESAs

In addition to federal laws, some states have their own laws regarding ESAs and service animals. Here are some key Pennsylvania ESA laws:

  • Pennsylvania follows federal law in excluding ESAs from the definition of service animals. Services animals, but not ESAs, are permitted in public places under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.
  • The state’s Fair Housing Act aligns with the federal FHA in requiring housing providers to make reasonable accommodations for ESAs.
  • Pennsylvania law provides penalties for misrepresenting pets as service animals or ESAs to obtain housing or public access rights. Fines up to $1,000 may apply.
  • No state licensing, certification or training requirements exist for ESAs in Pennsylvania.

Overall, Pennsylvania follows federal law in distinguishing between ESAs and service animals. ESAs receive housing protections but no special access to public places. Falsely claiming pets as assistance animals is prohibited under state law.

Key Takeaways on ESA Protections and Limitations

To summarize the key protections and limitations governing emotional support animals:

  • Not covered under ADA – ESAs are not considered service animals and therefore do not have access rights in public places under the ADA. Only trained service dogs/mini horses qualify under the ADA.
  • Protected for housing – The FHA requires housing providers to make reasonable accommodations for ESAs to support those with mental disabilities, despite no pet policies.
  • Can fly with owner – Airlines must allow ESAs to accompany disabled handlers in the cabin under the ACAA. Advance notice and ESA letter required.
  • No professional training required – ESAs do not need specialized training like service animals. A prescription letter is sufficient documentation.
  • Can be restricted by species/size – Housing providers can impose reasonable species and size restrictions on ESAs. Airlines restrict “unusual” species.
  • Fraud penalties – State laws penalize misrepresenting pets as ESAs or service animals. Fines up to $1,000 in Pennsylvania.

Understanding these nuances helps ensure people obtain appropriate accommodations for legitimate ESAs, while also preventing exploitation of protections. When prescribed appropriately by mental health professionals, ESAs can provide invaluable comfort and support to those with disabilities.


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