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How to Register an Emotional Support Animal

There are a few key things you should know.

by Madeleine Aggeler
January 4, 2023
A woman laying on a zig zag patterned blanket while curling around her brown and white dog
Aleksey Boyko / Shutterstock

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As anyone who has lived with dogs knows, they can provide incredible solace for people when they’re struggling. After these past few years, mental health concerns abound, and we definitely need the help of our favorite furry pals. For some, that comfort goes beyond being a soft shoulder to cry on; people struggling with their mental health can have their dog registered as an emotional support animal (ESA).

Unlike regular service-dog registration, ESAs don’t have to go through puppy service-dog training to get an emotional support animal registration. They don’t even have to be a dog. But be careful: Although there are a lot of websites out there that claim to be able to register your service dog online or provide a license, for your dog to legitimately qualify as an ESA, you will have to get a letter from a certified mental health professional. Below, what you need to know about ESAs, and how to register your dog as one.

What is an ESA, exactly?

An ESA is an animal that provides therapeutic benefits — such as companionship, comfort, and support — to a person struggling with mental illness. ESAs aren’t limited to dogs and cats; any domesticated animal can be an ESA, as long as a mental health professional determines that their presence helps their owner emotionally. ESAs can help individuals with depression, anxiety, PTSD, learning disorders, and certain phobias. 

Although people online have cracked jokes about people’s emotional support pigs and turkeys on flights, there are legitimate reasons why someone would need an emotional support animal that is not a dog or a cat. For example: Rats are considered excellent emotional support animals because they are highly intelligent, extremely social, and easier to care for than a dog or a cat. They make great companions for those who might have limited energy or mobility.

How do I register my dog as an ESA?

First, keep in mind that there is no official U.S. government registry of service dogs, nor is there any official certification process. More often than not, websites that let you buy “official service dog registrations” are scams. That being said, you can show that your animal is a legitimate ESA by obtaining a letter from a certified mental health professional. Ideally, this letter should be on official letterhead, should include the therapist’s license number as well as their signature and the date they wrote the letter, and should include a brief explanation as to why you need an emotional support animal. 

How does an animal provide emotional support?

According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), interacting with pets can decrease one’s levels of the stress hormone cortisol and help lower blood pressure. Studies have found that having pets can also “reduce loneliness, increase feelings of social support, and boost your mood.” As Dr. Layla Esposito, who oversees the NIH’s Human-Animal Interaction Research Program explains, which animal can best support you depends on your specific needs.

“Is your goal to increase physical activity? Then you might benefit from owning a dog,” Dr. Esposito advises. “You have to walk a dog several times a day, and you’re going to increase physical activity. If your goal is reducing stress, sometimes watching fish swim can result in a feeling of calmness. So there’s no one-type-fits-all.”

How is an ESA different from a service animal?

What differentiates an ESA from a service animal is that ESAs are not trained to perform specific tasks for their owners. To qualify as a service animal under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), your animal (1) must be a dog (or in very specific cases, a miniature horse), and (2) must be “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” While ESAs offer general emotional support to their parents just by being with them, service dogs receive extensive and individualized training so they can help support individuals with a number of physical and mental disabilities. These include seeing and hearing impairments, epilepsy, diabetes, PTSD, autism, and those in need of mobility assistance.

What rights do ESAs have?

Because ESAs do not qualify as service animals under the ADA, they don’t have all the same rights. While service animals must be allowed in all businesses and spaces where the public generally is allowed to go, ESAs don’t have that same access. And while passengers were previously allowed to bring their ESAs with them on planes, in December 2020, the Department of Transportation announced that it was revising the Air Carrier Access Act to only include service animals that have been trained to perform a specific task for their owner. This meant no more high-flying ESAs.

Instead, you can register your dog as a Psychiatric Service Dog (PSD), and they can fly with you. Unlike ESAs, your PSD must be a dog, and they require specific training to help support their parent’s psychiatric needs.

Although there are some barriers for ESAs, they do have some protections. Under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), landlords may not refuse housing to those with disabilities or who require an ESA, even if the building has a no-pets policy. They are, however, allowed to ask for documentation or a letter from a mental health professional that confirms a tenant’s need for an ESA. Read here for more information on what people can and can’t ask you about your ESA.

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Madeleine Aggeler

Madeleine Aggeler is a freelance journalist and copywriter in Washington, D.C. Previously, she was a writer at New York magazine’s The Cut. She lives with her dog, Cleo, who works primarily as a foot warmer.