I Can Take My Emotional Support Animal Anywhere I Want, Right?

No. Emotional support animals are different from service animals and there are laws that are very specific as to what kind of animal fits into one of these categories and what these animals are permitted to do.

People will tell you you can get an Emotional Support Animal (ESA) certificate online or from your doctor. They will say that this certificate will allow you to take your rescue pet into stores and restaurants, and a landlord will have to accept the pet. It’s like people think that rules regarding pets don’t apply to them if they call their pet an ESA. ESA is different from service animals and the laws regarding them are different. First, let’s understand what a service animal is, then what an ESA is, then we will explore what that means to the animal’s human.

Service Animals

dog- seeing eye dog. photo by Honza Groh   https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SVVP_Klikat%C3%A1,_veden%C3%AD_nevidom%C3%A9ho.jpgphoto by Honza Groh https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SVVP_Klikat%C3%A1,_veden%C3%AD_nevidom%C3%A9ho.jpg

People with a documented disability can use trained service animals to help them with specific tasks. This is a right guaranteed by the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

Americans with Disabilities Act

President HW Bush signing the ADA - public domain

This is a federal law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. This act is designed to allow disabled people the same access to jobs, stores, transportation, communication, governmental programs, activities, and opportunities that nondisabled people have. 

The definition of a disabled person, according to the ADA is someone with a physical or mental impairment that limits their ability to participate in one or more life activities, a history of such an impairment, and/or is perceived by others as having an impairment. Because of the ADA, we have curb cuts on sidewalks, elevators in buildings and subway stations, ramps into buildings, and other “reasonable accommodations” that allow disabled people access.

Reasonable accommodations is another legal term. It means that there is some leeway for a business, landlord, or other place that needs to accommodate a disabled person.  If the accommodations place too much stress on the business, they don’t have to make that accommodation.

Trained Service Animal

dog- trained service dog - public domain

A trained service animal is an animal that helps a disabled person with one or more life activities. A seeing-eye dog will help a visually impaired person with mobility. A dog may fetch needed out-of-reach objects for a person in a wheelchair.  A dog may nuzzle a hearing-impaired person when the doorbell rings or a smoke detector goes off. Another dog may inform a person with epilepsy that they are about to have a seizure and the dog may get help when the seizure is happening. A dog may remind a person to take their medication. A dog might check a room for safety for a person with PTSD.

All of these dogs are specially trained to do a specific task. They can be trained by the person needing the service or they can be trained by an organization that trains dogs for people. The Seeing Eye organization trains dogs to help blink people with mobility.  These dogs are trained as puppies and wouldn’t be a rescue pet.  But it is possible for a disabled person to rescue a dog, train that dog to help them with a task, and call it a service animal.

Dogs and Miniature Horses

horse - guide horse. Photo by DanDee Shots https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Guide_horse.jpgPhoto by DanDee Shots https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Guide_horse.jpg

Dogs of any size or breed can be trained to be service dogs. The only other animal that can be a service animal is a miniature horse. Miniature horses have height and weight restrictions. They are most often used to guide a visually impaired person. Some of the advantages of miniature horses over dogs are that they live long, they are taller and stronger so they can also help with balance, they have a naturally calm temperament, and people are less likely to be allergic to a miniature horse.

Service Animal Certification

There is no certification or registration for a service animal. If you have a service animal and want to bring it to a place that normally doesn’t allow animals, you can be asked if the dog is required because you have a disability.  They can also ask what that animal does for you and if the animal has undergone training to do this task. They can not ask what your disability is. They can not make the dog demonstrate performing the task and they can not ask for any documentation that the dog is a service animal.

Some people get a service animal vest for their dog, or an ID saying that the dog is a service animal.  You can also register your dog as a service animal and have a certificate. This may make life with a service animal easier if you have to deal with people who don’t understand the law, but none of it is required.

dog - service dog in a vest Image by CLVann from Pixabay https://pixabay.com/photos/service-dog-dog-golden-retriever-2098366/Image by CLVann https://pixabay.com/photos/service-dog-dog-golden-retriever-2098366/

Reasonable Accommodations

The dog or horse must be housebroken and under their person’s control at all times. If the person is unable to care for the animal, they must have a designated person do that for them. No business or hospital should take care of a service animal for a patron.

A service animal can stay in any hotel guest room, it doesn’t have to be a designated “pet-friendly” guest room. If people are allergic to the animal, the owner of the business is required to find a solution that allows everyone access.  The same goes for people who are afraid of dogs - that is no reason to ban a service dog, of any breed, from an area.

Dog on the floor well behaved  Photo by Luiza Sayfullina on Unsplash https://unsplash.com/photos/eeHodrb8G60 Photo by Luiza Sayfullina https://unsplash.com/photos/eeHodrb8G60

Dogs must usually stay on the floor or be carried by their owners. So they should not ride in shopping carts or sit on tables or chairs in restaurants.

Service Animal Summary

So, while service dogs and miniature horses are allowed almost anywhere their human goes, they must not create a big disturbance by their behavior or by relieving themselves inappropriately. The service animal must be trained to provide a specific service to the human although formal training and documentation is not required.

Emotional Support Animals

rabbit - human cuddling rabbit Photo by cottonbro studio: https://www.pexels.com/photo/a-man-in-brown-coat-holding-a-brown-rabbit-10650801/Photo by cottonbro studio: https://www.pexels.com/photo/a-man-in-brown-coat-holding-a-brown-rabbit-10650801/

Emotional support animals are not governed by the ADA. Psychiatric service animals are. If the dog or miniature horse is trained to perform a specific task that helps someone with a mental health diagnosis, then that is the same as any service animal. If the function of a dog, miniature horse, or any other animal is to provide comfort, relieve anxiety or depression just by their presence, and the animals is not trained to performa a specific task, then that animal is considered an ESA.

Laws and ESAs

If a person can get a letter from a licensed healthcare professional saying that their animal is an ESA, then that person can have their animal in an apartment or house where pets aren’t normally allowed. There is no restriction regarding pet size or breed to be an ESA. 

The landlord is not permitted to charge any kind of fee or increase rent for the animal. This is the law according to the Fair Housing Act.  The ESA is not covered inder the ADA, but the Fair Housing Act. This law does not apply to owner occupied buildings with no more that four units or single family homes rented by the owner without an agent. There is also an exception if the animal would pose a direct threat to the health and safety of other people or if it would cause substantial property damage. The landlord can not ask the person to seeking an ESA animal to use a certain form for the request and they can not ask about any details or diagnosis regarding the person’s disability.

airplane window Photo by Tove Liu: https://www.pexels.com/photo/airplane-window-seat-view-of-white-clouds-4004058/Photo by Tove Liu: https://www.pexels.com/photo/airplane-window-seat-view-of-white-clouds-4004058/

Another law regarding animals is the Air Carrier Access Act. This pertains to both service animals and ESAs when flying. When traveling with a service animal or ESA on an airplane you may be required to show documentation of the need for the animal or fill out a special form. Airlines do not have to accept all animals as service animals or ESAs. The list of prohibited animals includes spiders, rodents, snakes, any animals that is too large for the cabin, an animal the would cause disruption to cabin service, or one that would provide a direct threat to the health snd safety of others.

The laws regarding ESAs are continually changing.


dog - emotional support Photo by Alena Darmel: https://www.pexels.com/photo/man-kissing-a-dog-6643670/Photo by Alena Darmel: https://www.pexels.com/photo/man-kissing-a-dog-6643670/

You can’t just decide that your pet is a service animal or ESA so you can bring them to any store of business. A service animal is only a dog or miniature horse and it must have training to do a specific task. An ESA can be any animal but the laws regarding ESAs only have to do with housing and air travel.

Some people have abused these laws and this makes it harder for those who actually required these animals. A person wanted to bring an ESA peacock on a plane which promted new, stricter laws regarding ESAs and flying.

You can’t go to a business or restaurant with your pet and say that the animal is an ESA and must be allowed in. Only service animals are allowed in businesses. The ESA is a designation for housing and air travel. If you feel that your pet heps keep you calm and happy, pursue an ESA letter from your healthcare professional so you can keep that pet in your apartment. But don’t expect to go anywhere you want with it.

Please don’t make it harder for people who genuinely need a service animal or ESA to function in the world by just deciding that your pet is an ESA and should go everywhere with you.

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