An emotional support animal (ESA) can be a literal life saver when it comes to helping you cope with mental health issues. Whether you’re dealing with severe depression, anxiety, or another psychological ailment, the comforting presence of your animal companion can be the key to improving your quality of life and allowing you to live a more peaceful existence.
Navigating the rules and regulations surrounding ESAs can be a confusing and challenging process. Thankfully, we here at USServiceAnimals.org are here to help you. Read on to learn more about the legal protections to which you are entitled as an ESA owner in Rhode Island.
What Is the Legal Definition of an ESA?
In legal terms, it’s important to note that an ESA differs somewhat from a regular “service animal” as defined under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Under the ADA, a service animal is a dog (or miniature horse) that is specially trained to perform specific tasks for its owner —like how a guide dog leads its visually-impaired owner around obstacles, for example.
Unlike a regular service animal, an ESA isn’t necessarily trained to carry out any particular duty. Rather, an ESA alleviates the symptoms of its owner’s mental health condition simply by being present, and providing them with the reassurance of its companionship and affection.
The ADA, which governs the rules and regulations for service animals at the federal level, does not consider “the provision of emotional support, well-being, or companionship” to constitute work or tasks that fit its legal definition of a “service animal.”
Fortunately, the state of Rhode Island has very favorable ESA laws compared to most jurisdictions in the country. In fact, the state extends the same rights and privileges to “therapy pets” (which include ESAs) as they do to regular service animals under the ADA.
Moreover, your ESA doesn’t even need to be a dog, necessarily — state legislation permits (but isn’t limited to) “cats, rabbits, and guinea pigs,” among others.
Can I Bring My ESA to Public Spaces and Private Businesses in Rhode Island?
Because Rhode Island extends the same legal protections to ESAs as it does to regular service animals, you’re entitled to bring your ESA anywhere covered by the ADA. This includes restaurants, bars, cafés, stores, college or university campuses, and public transit.
The major exceptions to this are religious institutions, which are exempt from the ADA. As such, churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and other places of worship are not legally required to allow entry to you and your ESA.
What Happens If You Misrepresent Your Pet as an ESA in Rhode Island?
In June 2019, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed an omnibus bill designed to counteract the perceived abuse of the state’s permissive ESA laws. Under these new rules, it is now a civil infraction to misrepresent your personal pet as a service animal. Violators can be punished by up to 30 hours of community service.
Although ESAs aren’t technically “service animals,” they are still exempt from this recent legislation as long as you adhere to the proper procedures and obtain the appropriate paperwork.
How Can I Prove My Animal Is an ESA in Rhode Island?
The most important step in this process is to get a letter from a licensed medical professional in the state of Rhode Island. This doctor’s note needs to verify that you have a mental or emotional disability (as recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and that your ESA serves to mitigate the negative effects of your condition.
In addition to this, ESA owners in Rhode Island are now required to prove that their animal has an ongoing, working relationship in conjunction with an accredited “pet assisted therapy facilitator” (i.e. your ESA physician) in a medical or educational context. If your doctor’s note is not sufficient to prove this to the concerned authorities, they will need to contact your physician directly to confirm your status as a patient, as well as your physician’s relationship with your ESA.
Having to provide documentary proof of your ESA’s medically recognized status isn’t anything new. However, due to these new laws you can expect to undergo increased scrutiny by state authorities, who will be slightly more invasive than they have been in previous years.
Luckily, our dedicated legal team is always available to assist you in navigating the complexities of this new system.
Can I Live With My ESA in Rhode Island?
Under federal law, the Fair Housing Act (FHA) requires housing providers to make “reasonable accommodations” for both service animals and “support animals” on their properties. It is important to note that the FHA applies equally to residences on college and university campuses.
As detailed in the FHA, support animals do not need to be specially trained — providing their owner with therapeutic emotional support is sufficient for them to be covered by the protections of this national legislation.
The FHA mandates that your housing provider must selectively rescind any no-pets policies for your ESA. They are also forbidden from charging you any fees or additional damage deposits to allow your ESA in the building.
The Rhode Island Fair Housing Practices Act (FHPA) also contains provisions regarding “assistive animals” — legally synonymous with the FHA’s “support animals,” which cover ESAs. Under the FHPA, the owner or manager of a property “MUST make reasonable accommodations when those are necessary to afford an applicant or occupant (with an assistive animal) equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.”
What Do I Need to Make Sure My ESA Can Live With Me?
Property owners or rental agencies will require the appropriate documentation to make an exemption for your ESA. You will need to provide a letter from your healthcare professional that confirms your disability and proves that they have “personal knowledge” of you as their patient. It must also include:
- Details about your mental/emotional impairment (and its impact on your life activities and/or bodily functions).
- The type of animal for which the accommodation is being sought.
- Proof that your ESA provides therapeutic support for your condition.
- Your physician’s signature and contact information.
Non-domesticated animals that are not considered “common household animals” (such as reptiles, barnyard animals, or monkeys) are not protected under the FHA unless they possess some unique assistance skills or abilities.
However, based on past court cases, the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights (RICHR) generally tends against property owners dictating the weight, breed, or species of their tenants’ support animals. State laws on this issue appear to be more lenient than the FHA.
Can a Landlord Refuse My ESA Request?
Housing providers can only prevent your ESA from living with you if:
- It poses a threat to the physical safety of others
- It will cause substantial physical damage to the property
- It poses an undue financial or administrative burden on the property owner
- If it will fundamentally alter the nature of the housing provider’s operations
However, the onus is on the housing provider to provide an individualized assessment based on objective evidence pertaining to the behavioral history of the specific animal.
Can I Fly With My ESA in Rhode Island?
The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) once allowed individuals with disabilities to bring their ESAs onto commercial flights for free. However, this is no longer true, and only trained service animals can fly with you for free.
You can still ask an airline if they’ll accomodate your ESA, though they’ll likely charge you a fee and have you keep them in a carrier. If you want to fly with your emotional support dog for free still, you can speak to us about training them to become a service dog.
Can I Bring My ESA to My Workplace in Rhode Island?
Strangely, the ADA’s service animal provisions are only included in those sections dealing with state and local government services, programs, and activities, as well as public accommodations. The bill’s employment provisions make no explicit mention of service animals.
While there is no automatic requirement for employers to permit ESAs in the workplace, they must still treat the matter like any other special request for an accommodation under the ADA.
After providing medical documentation to verify your disability, talk with your employer about reaching an agreement on modifying the workplace’s no-pets policy (if there is one).
Your employer can reject your request if they believe that the presence of your ESA would pose an “undue hardship” on your coworkers. However, if their reluctance to permit your ESA is totally arbitrary or unfounded, take the matter up with the RICHR or speak with our legal experts about reaching an accommodation.
Summary of ESA Laws in Rhode Island
There’s no doubt that ESA laws can be complicated. To make things even simpler, here is a brief recap of emotional support animal laws in Rhode Island:
- In Rhode Island, you can bring your emotional support animal anywhere that regular service animals are allowed.
- With regard to housing, you are entitled to reasonable accommodations for your emotional support animal.
- Since 2019, Rhode Island has been scrutinizing eligibility criteria for emotional support animals much more closely.
- You need a letter from a medical professional licensed in Rhode Island to prove that you legitimately require an emotional support animal.
- org can officially register your emotional support animal and connect you with a licensed medical professional in Rhode Island.
We Can Help You Get an ESA Letter in Rhode Island
We hope that this informative guide has given you a clear and comprehensive overview of ESA rules and regulations in the state of Rhode Island, as well as the federal legal protections to which you are entitled.
While all the various laws governing ESAs can seem overwhelming, USServiceAnimals.org is here to guide you through the process. We’ll put you in touch with one of our mental health professionals in the state in which you live. They’ll perform a phone consultation with you, where you can discuss your mental/emotional health issues and see if having an ESA is right for you.
If you qualify for an ESA, you’ll receive a letter confirming your status and be granted access to our team of legal experts. They will be happy to assist you with any difficulties you might have in getting an accommodation for your ESA.