When life gets rough, sometimes you need another kind of ruff to make things a little smoother. We’re talking about emotional support animals (ESAs), or animals that benefit their owners by providing therapeutic companionship. Most of the time, owners suffer from a mental health condition, such as anxiety or depression.
To have your animal recognized as an ESA, you’ll need an ESA letter. Owning a dog or other animal and claiming it’s an ESA isn’t enough to earn you the special privileges that come with owning one. Virginia, like many other states, requires ESA owners to get an ESA letter, which is a letter written and signed by a licensed mental health professional stating that the person in question has a serious mental health condition that can be alleviated with the help of an ESA.
ESAs and Service Animals: What’s the Difference?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Virginia’s disability laws state that people with disabilities can bring their service animals to all “public accommodations,” including, but not limited to, schools, restaurants, businesses, hotels/motels, theaters, and stores, to name a few. However, it’s crucial to define what a service animal is in this instance.
Service animals are typically dogs that receive special, extensive training to help prepare them in case their owners suffer a medical emergency. The state of Virginia breaks this down further into three groups: service dogs, guide dogs, and hearing dogs.
Service dogs’ training varies depending on their owners’ disabilities. For example, a service dog whose owner has epilepsy may receive training that allows them to alert their owners of an oncoming seizure. Another example is when a service dog receives training to remind their owner to take their daily anti-anxiety or anti-depression medication. Following this, the service dog’s work must directly relate to their owner’s disability.
These service animals assist vision-impaired individuals, whether they’re partially blind or fully blind. Guide dogs typically help their owners navigate the world around them.
Like guide dogs, hearing dogs assist their hearing-impaired owners by indicating danger and other strange, sudden noises through touch.
Interestingly, nothing in Virginia law explicitly includes “psychiatric service dogs” or dogs that help their owners manage their emotional or psychiatric disabilities by performing disability-specific tasks. The ADA, however, does; their definition of a service animal encompasses “dog[s] that ha[ve] been individually trained to perform disability-related tasks or work for the benefit of a person with a disability.”
However, neither Virginia service animal laws nor the ADA includes ESAs as service animals. This is mainly because ESAs don’t receive any special training to alleviate the symptoms of their emotional or psychiatric disability. Virginia law goes even further to state that providing emotional support, comfort, wellbeing, or companionship does not qualify as performing disability-specific tasks for their owners.
Therefore, note that an ESA, although it has some rights which we will explore, do not enjoy the same rights as service animals trained to do specific tasks.
How Can I Legally Get an ESA in Virginia?
You’ll need to get an official letter written and signed by your licensed mental health provider in order to qualify for an ESA in Virginia. You’ll most likely have to meet with your licensed mental health provider first to explain your situation and desire for an ESA. During this meeting your licensed mental health provider will assess your condition and determine whether an ESA would markedly benefit you.
Unlike service animals, ESAs encompass a much wider scope of pets, so long as they provide the emotional support their owner is seeking. This means that you can head to your local pet store or shelter and find an animal you bond with easily to be your ESA. Keep an eye out for scams, though; if anyone tells you that you need an ESA certification to get an ESA, or that you need to register your animal, they are either wrong or purposefully misleading you. The ESA letter from a doctor is the one and only piece of documentation you need.
The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) is a federal law stating that anyone with a mental or emotional illness and a valid official ESA letter (that must have been issued less than a year ago) can legally travel with their ESA. In addition to having this letter, ESA owners must meet a few other requirements before they can board a plane with their ESA.
In addition to having an official ESA letter, ESA owners must explain to the airline why their ESA provides them emotional support and must have a mental or emotional health problem that complies with the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). If an ESA owner satisfies all these requirements, then both the owner and their ESA can travel on the plane together. Furthermore, federal law prohibits airlines from asking them any further questions regarding their ESA’s competency and efficacy.
Another perk of the ACAA is that travel fees for ESAs are waived. Under normal circumstances, airlines charge pet owners a small fee to have their pets travel onboard with them. In the event that an airline refuses an ESA to board the plane, then their owner can request a meeting with a Customer Resolution Official (CRO) to resolve the dispute. CROs are specially-trained airline employees who handle customers’ disability-related issues and concerns.
In a word, ESA owners can travel with their ESAs on airplanes thanks to the ACAA. All you need to do is have your official ESA letter on hand when you call the airline you’re flying with to see what their ESA policy is.
You must also call the airline you’re flying with at least 48 hours in advance to notify them that you’ll be traveling on the plane with your ESA. If your ESA is too large to fit in a traditional airline seat, your seat may be moved to better accommodate your ESA and clear the aisles and pathways of any obstructions.
If your ESA can fit on your lap, then you’ll most likely be permitted to keep your ESA on your lap for the duration of the flight. If the animal is too big to fit on your lap, then an airline attendant may ask you to move your ESA to the floor.
Keep in mind, though, that ESAs that display noisy, threatening, or otherwise aggressive behavior may be prohibited from boarding in the best interest of all the airline passengers. Simply owning an ESA does not give you the right to impinge on others’ sense of personal safety and comfort.
You may also want to plan ahead if your ESA letter’s validity is nearing its expiration date; if your letter expires before your flight date, your rights to bring your ESA on the plane with you may not be protected.
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) prohibits landlords and other residential property owners from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. In practical terms, this means that a landlord cannot refuse to rent or sell an apartment, house, or other residential property to a person simply because they have a disability.
Fortunately, the FHA applies to ESA owners as well. Just as airlines are not allowed to charge ESA owners standard pet travel fees under the ACAA, the FHA allows ESA owners to live with their ESA without having to pay pet fees. Since the FHA is a federal law, it’s applicable in all 50 states.
Your ESA must not be a nuisance, be overly loud, and be well behaved to retain this privilege, however. Furthermore, accommodating your ESA must not unreasonably burden the landlord financially.
What if you’re a college student who wants to bring their ESA to live with them on campus? The FHA will protect you here, too. However, campus housing works a little different for ESA owners; for example, this protection is mainly limited to on-campus housing, such as dormitories or university-owned apartments. The dean of your university may also recommend that you live separately from others so that your ESA will not create a nuisance for your would-be roommates.
What’s more, you won’t be able to bring your ESA to certain areas of campus where other service animals would be permitted. Some of these public spaces include campus dining halls, libraries, classrooms, and grocery stores.
Employers are prohibited from discriminating against you if you suffer from a mental or emotional disability, and so there are some laws that require employers to accommodate your requests to have your ESA with you on the job. In this case, you can meet with your employer to discuss your situation and advocate for why you need your ESA with you at work.
Now, the ADA does require employers to provide “reasonable accommodation” to employees with disabilities, unless it imposes “undue hardship” on the employer. Service animals qualify as a reasonable accommodation under this definition, since they have the specific training to help their owners perform their work duties. But seeing as ESAs don’t receive this same, special training, they aren’t covered under the ADA and your employer is within their rights to refuse your request. A notable exception is the state of California, whose disability discrimination laws do include ESAs as reasonable accommodation.
Because of the case-by-case nature of having your ESA at work with you, you might need to explain to your employer how having your ESA at work will specifically benefit you. However, your employer is not allowed to ask you for a demonstration of your ESA’s ability to help you function at work properly.
Your valid, official ESA letter is not a catch-all by any means; even though ESAs are generally allowed in most of the same public spaces that service animals are, you may be asked to leave the vicinity in special cases. For example, if you are seen publicly mistreating your ESA, the owner or operator of the public space may ask you to leave. This is also true if your ESA is posing a threat to other people in the area, or if their noisiness is creating a public disruption.
What’s more, you’ll be on the hook financially-speaking if your ESA damages any public property. This extends to housing as well, where a landlord is legally allowed to charge you for any damages done to the apartment or house by your ESA.
What Happens If I Misrepresent My ESA?
A word of advice: don’t try to hoodwink anyone when it comes to getting an ESA. Not only will you be hit with a sizable fine (which can run as high as $10,000 in some cases), but you may even face criminal charges depending on the severity of your case. It is illegal to claim that an animal is an ESA without having the proper, valid documentation to prove it. Moreover, it’s also illegal to claim you need an ESA when, in reality, you don’t.
An Overview of an ESA Letter
Procuring your ESA letter legally is the only way you can be sure that federal and state disability anti-discrimination laws will protect you and your ESA. The ADA, ACAA, FHA, and Virginia state law all require employers to provide reasonable accommodation for their employees with ESAs, provided they can furnish this proper documentation and satisfy the legal requirements.
It’s best to avoid any fishy-looking websites that claim they can get you an official ESA letter without having you first meet with a licensed mental health provider. These websites are largely scams, and the letters they provide are illegitimate, and therefore, invalid. You do not need to register or certify your ESA. The letter is all that matters.
How to Get an ESA Letter in Virginia
If you suffer from a mental or emotional disability and want to learn more about how to legally get an ESA letter in Virginia, you can learn more and kickstart the process here U.S. Service Animals. All you’ll need to do to get started is complete our registration form, after which you’ll schedule a time to meet with a licensed mental health provider who can assess your condition and determine whether you’d benefit from having an ESA or not. After you successfully complete your interview, your new, official ESA letter will be sent to you, and you can start enjoying all of the benefits that having a valid ESA letter provides.