Every day, thousands of people register their emotional support animal (ESA) online to access services like housing, but what are they really getting for their money? The shocking answer is that most are getting absolutely nothing. If you only read one sentence in this article, it’s this: you NEED to talk to a board-certified doctor or licensed mental health professional to qualify for a legal ESA letter.
If you don’t talk to licensed health professional, you are being sold an unenforceable document that will not get your pet into your chosen accommodation for free. Over the past few months, we have reviewed dozens of websites touting cheap ESA doctor’s letters, and nearly all are scams. While we feel it is not our place to list which companies are scams, below is a list of things to look out for to ensure you aren’t being taken advantage of.
Before diving into how to avoid a scam, we’ll first review what ESAs are and the importance of obtaining an ESA letter.
What is an Emotional Support Animal?
Emotional support animals (ESA) provide comfort and support to a handler. Unlike therapy animals that work with a group of people — say, in a care home — ESAs are assigned to one handler and will accompany them in public places.
The primary role of an ESA is to provide comfort and security. These animals are particularly beneficial for handlers with emotional or mental disabilities such as anxiety or depression or who require support following bereavement or a traumatic event. However, while ESAs are valuable for physical and mental health support, their role is more like a pet than a service animal.
The Importance of an ESA letter
According to federal and state laws, housing providers are required to make reasonable accommodations for emotional support animals. However, a verbal agreement that your animal is an ESA is often not enough. Many landlords and housing providers are entitled to request documentation to validate your ESA, which is where the ESA letter comes in.
An ESA letter is a document written by a licensed mental health care professional that states your need for the animal and how it helps with your mental or emotional disability. It’s important to note that an ESA letter is the only legitimate way to validate your emotional support animal. Knowing that fact can arm you against potential scams in the future.
If you have a disability such as anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), you might qualify for an ESA letter; however, it is up to the mental health professional to verify this. Therefore, it is vital to see a qualified professional for an ESA letter rather than an agency that claims they can “verify” your animal.
Once you qualify, the mental health professional will provide you with a signed ESA letter on official letterhead that can be given to your landlord or housing provider.
Benefits of an ESA Letter
Aside from verifying the emotional need for your emotional support animal, an ESA letter provides the following benefits:
- Permission to live in housing or accommodation that normally as a no-pets policy
- Exemption from regular restrictions such as pet breed, size, and weight
- Exemption from pet administration fees
- Protection from discrimination
ESA Scams: What to Watch Out For
Having reviewed the importance of an ESA letter, below is a list of things to look out for to avoid ESA scams.
Instant ESA Letter Approval
If you were instantly approved for an ESA letter online after only answering a few questions, you are being scammed. You must talk to a board-certified doctor or mental health professional licensed to practice in your state (either on the phone or in person) to find out if you qualify for an ESA letter.
Shockingly Cheap ESA Letter
Quite simply, if it is too good to be true, then it probably is. Building a large network of licensed, high-quality board-certified doctors and mental health professionals covering nearly every state is time consuming and costly. Therefore, a legitimate ESA service will not be exceptionally cheap.
Cheap ESA letter companies cut corners and typically ask you speak to an overseas doctor who is not licensed to practice in your state. They may even just generate a letter with a fake doctor’s name and signature on it — so, be careful!
Do not fall for sites or agencies that claim they can “certify” your animal to be an ESA. There is no such thing as official certification, so any document claiming to do so is a scam. An ESA letter is the only valid way to prove your animal is an ESA.
As stated above, there is no official registration or certification process when it comes to ESAs. Even if the agency claims they can give you a registration number, this does not qualify your pet as an ESA.
Therefore, this is a red flag: if the website “registers” your pet as an emotional support animal but doesn’t put you in contact with a board-certified doctor or mental health professional who is licensed to practice in your state, your pet is not eligible for the benefits of an ESA letter. In other words, a certificate with your dog’s name on it is not a substitute for a doctor’s ESA letter.
Multiple-Year ESA Letters
ESA letters NEED to be renewed every year by talking to a board-certified doctor or licensed mental health professional. Any company selling you a multi-year or lifetime ESA doctor’s letter is scamming you.
An ESA letter gives your animal the right to live in “no-pet policy” housing without paying a pet security deposit. Any service that claims beyond that is a lie. An ESA letter does not grant you the right to take your pet into any public place like restaurants, theaters, libraries, etc. Only service animals such as psychiatric service dogs have the freedom to go nearly anywhere with few restrictions.
Lack of Client Support
ESA approval doesn’t just stop with the ESA letter. Some housing providers may be unaccommodating and demand additional documentation. If this is the case, legitimate ESA doctors will provide ongoing support and documentation as needed. Scam companies, on the other hand, often terminate contact once you’ve paid for their fake ESA letter.
How to Make Sure Everything is Legal
Before choosing an online ESA service, do your due diligence and determine whether the company adheres to the appropriate guidelines for ESA letters. The most important part is contact with the mental health professional, who not only needs to be certified but also licensed to practice in your state.
If you want to be 100% confident that you are getting a legal ESA letter from a board-certified doctor or licensed mental health professional in your state, request a free consultation from our team. We charge $179 for a doctor’s letter (if you qualify) — which is slightly more than the discount competitors out there — but you can rest assured that you are receiving a real legal document that will get your pet on a plane and into your apartment.
In addition, if you have any issues enforcing the doctor’s letter, our internal legal team will handle the matter free of charge.
Can landlords verify whether my ESA letter is legitimate?
Yes. Landlords and housing providers can verify ESA letters by checking the following. They can also request additional proof where needed.
- The ESA letter is written on official letterhead paper.
- The ESA letter provides contact information, including phone numbers and email addresses.
- The ESA letter contains the mental health professional’s license number, credentials, and contact details.
Are ESA Letters Obtained Online Valid?
The short answer is yes. While it may seem less valid, ESA letters obtained from a healthcare professional online are just as legitimate as getting them in person.
According to the US Department of Housing, health professionals and board-certified doctors are permitted to provide ESA services remotely. In fact, many mental health therapists provide their services online.
However, before going ahead, make sure they’re licensed for your state and are qualified to write an ESA letter. While they may have the credentials, not all health professionals are familiar with ESA letters or how to write one on a client’s behalf.
The Bottom Line
If your pet is your best friend and source of support, do not put them at risk with unenforceable, fake ESA letters. Avoid being told at the gate that your dog cannot board the plane or that your dog cannot live in your apartment building by getting an ESA letter from a credible company like US Support Animals.
We may not be the cheapest service, but remember, you get what you pay for.