While service animals are protected federally by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the same can’t be said for emotional support animals, which are also called "comfort animals." They may serve similar purposes in that they benefit the owner in accessing businesses or services, but this is not recognized by federal laws and legislation. So, what rights do people have in owning a comfort animal compared to a service animal?
The ADA states that emotional support animals, comfort animals, and therapy dogs are not service animals under its definition. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, aren’t considered service animals either. The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the individual’s disability. While there are certain benefits to having a doctor’s note stating that a person needs an animal for emotional support, this alone doesn’t bestow service animal status.
However, there are laws that support your right to own an official emotional support animal if you have anxiety or other conditions, according to Service Dog Certifications.
Protections exist under the Fair Housing Act and the Air Carrier Access Act. The Fair Housing Act allows emotional support animals to live in designated housing facilities even when they have a no-pet policy or weight and breed restrictions. When traveling by air, you can fly with your comfort animal without being charged fees for baggage and carry-on related snafus. Airlines may even provide reasonable accommodations if the animal is very large. Currently, there are discussions surrounding emotional support animals on airplanes and the future of their status is unknown.
The rules aren’t so lenient in public places. The ADA law only covers service animals that are individually trained to perform a task that benefits the life of a handler with a disability. Comfort animals don’t receive the same treatment. So, while they may be legally allowed in apartments and airplanes, they may not be able to go, for example, into barbershops, movie theaters, restaurants, or schools.
If you want to use an emotional support animal, you are required by law to have an ESA (emotional support animal) letter that designates you as needing one, according to ESA Doctors. That means filling out a questionnaire, making a secure payment, and answering questions about what kind of animal you have or need. Then you must talk to a licensed medical professional to determine whether you meet the federal definition of a disability and whether you have a legitimate need to receive the ESA.
Sites such as ESA Doctors can even provide a therapist to speak to if you don’t have a primary doctor. Once you are confirmed and receive the letter – a process that usually takes a few days – you officially become the owner of a comfort animal.