Forget what you know about emotional support animals (ESA), because the ESA mythbusters are here, reporting for duty! It’s been a long while since something as universally divisive as ESAs came along, and they seem to have spawned as many rumors and myths as imaginable, with the help of a fair share media sensation to be sure. We’re here to bust the myths that you might have believed, and to be honest, with all the peacocks, kangaroos, pigs, ducks, squirrels and turkeys on the news, we don’t entirely blame you! 

If you’ve taken any of these to heart, we’re here to explain why they’re myths, and to expose the real truth behind the myths.

Myth #1 Anyone can get an ESA

This is a common misconception that runs rampant, and unfortunately gives ESAs a bad name in public. Despite the common sentiment that anyone is eligible for an ESA, it simply isn’t true.

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While ESAs can be any pet that gives emotional support, to get an ESA, it is necessary to be assessed by a licensed mental health professional, whether in-office or by using teletherapy.

You are only eligible for an emotional support animal if you have a recognized mental health condition diagnosed by a therapist. So, this is a total myth—please don’t go to your doctor asking for an ESA if you are feeling healthy, because you will not be eligible for one. 

Myth #2 Emotional support animals and service animals are the same thing 

Totally untrue! While ESAs and service animals fall under the category of assistance animals, they have totally different roles.

Service animals are trained for months to complete specific duties, whereas emotional support animals do not require any specific training.

Service animals also provide highly specific services to their owners, for example, guide dogs undergo intensive training in tasks that ensure they provide safety to their owner, which is essential for their well-being. Emotional support animals, on the other hand, are kept for their general emotionally beneficial effects, both physiological and psychological, on a range of different mental health conditions.

Myth #3 Emotional support animals are permitted everywhere

Wrong again. While service animals are permitted everywhere with their owners, the same is not true for ESAs. The American Disability Act (ADA) ensures that service animals are allowed in spaces both public and private, regardless of individual restrictions.

The same permissions do not apply to ESAs, and they are only allowed to enter private areas such as hotels, shops, restaurants if permitted by the business. It’s up to the owner of the ESA to check before arriving with their animal if they will be permitted inside a business, and whether they need to pay any additional fee in the case of hotels.

The laws that do make a provision for ESAs are the Aircraft Carrier Access Act (ACA) and the Fair Housing Act (FHA). These laws allow those with ESAs to live in any rental accommodation, regardless of their pet policy and to fly without needing to pay a pet fee (subject to airline policy). 

Myth #4 ESAs must wear a vest to show their status

Unfortunately, it has become commonplace for many ESA owners to believe that their cat or dog must wear a vest when out in public to demonstrate their duty as an emotional support animal.

However, this is not the case. While an owner can choose to outfit their cat or dog in a vest, it is certainly not compulsory for an ESA to wear one. The only documentation that is required to prove a pet’s status as an emotional support animal is an ESA letter provided by a therapist.

Myth #5 You must show proof for your service animals

Remember—service animals and emotional support animals are not the same. While it’s necessary to present a landlord or airline with an ESA letter to prove that you use the animal as a disability aid, you do not need to provide proof that your service animal is a service animal.

The official guideline regarding this, is that in situations where it is not obvious that the dog is a service animal, staff may ask only two specific questions of you.  

“Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?” 

and 

“What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?”

These are the only comments allowed to be made to ascertain if an animal is a service animal. ESA owners, by contrast must present their ESA letter as requested.

Myth #6 It’s a landlord’s right to reject an ESA if they believe a tenant is not disabled

Owners of ESAs are not afforded all the rights which service animal owners receive, however the right to live with their support animal is protected under federal law.

According to the Humane Society of America, under the FHA, a disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment which significantly limits a person’s major life activities.

Even if a lease says “no pets” or restricts pets, landlords are required to make what is called a “reasonable accommodation” to allow pets who serve as assistance animals, which includes animals who provide emotional support.

If a tenant is able to produce an ESA letter, which is written confirmation from their therapist that they have a medical need for their animal, a landlord may not reject the pet. If a landlord denies a tenant after they have fulfilled the conditions under the FHA, it is considered discrimination, and a breach of federal law.

If a potential tenant is denied housing, they can report a landlord for the discrimination that they have experienced. Punishments for landlords can include fines, punitive damages and lawyer’s fees. If you are an ESA owner, do keep this information in mind, so that you are able to find appropriate accommodation whilst being aware of your rights. 

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Lack of education breeds fear, which breeds distrust, which breeds anger. We want to spread the truth about how awesome ESAs are, not the myths that are created by people who don’t know any better. With more understanding about the truth of what ESAs are really used for and how they work, there’s no doubt that we can be on our way to a more inclusive and tolerant society! Looking to learn more about ESA dogs? Learn more here.

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