Virginia Emotional Support Animal Laws

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

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.

Guide dogs

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.

Hearing dogs

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.

Psychiatric Service Dog in Virginia

A psychiatrist service dog is a type of service animal that helps people with mental health disorders. People are eligible for a psychiatric service dog after meeting with a licensed mental health professional because they require a diagnosis. Unlike emotional support animals, these dogs usually need to be registered with the state because they have extra protections from the Fair Housing Act (FHA), the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Psychiatric service dogs provide an important service for people who struggle with mental health conditions. While medications can help treat conditions like bipolar disorder and anxiety, service dogs take treatment a step further by recognizing when a panic attack is going to start. This helps them intervene and prevent the panic attack from even happening.

Psychiatric service dogs are also trained to perform specific tasks for their owners. Common tasks include fetching medications, reading emotions, and calming people down when they have a panic attack.

PTSD Service Dog in Virginia

A PTSD service dog is a unique type of service animal. It’s a type of psychiatric service dog that helps people who have post-traumatic stress disorder. What sets these dogs apart is their training. A PTSD service dog is usually trained to recognize someone’s triggers. This helps them calm someone down and prevent them from encountering triggers.

A PTSD service dog also helps in other ways. They can tell when someone is feeling anxious in a crowd and get them to safety. Some PTSD service dogs are even trained to locate the authorities if someone is having a seizure. Depending on your condition, the benefits that a PTSD service dog offer will vary.

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.

Travel Laws

The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) is a federal law stating that anyone with a mental or emotional illness can have their service animal fly with them for free in an airplane cabin. However, ESAs are no longer granted this right. But you can very likely train your emotional support dog to become a service dog, so that they can still support you in the air.

Also, keep in mind, though, that service animals that display noisy, threatening, or otherwise aggressive behavior may be prohibited from boarding in the best interest of all the airline passengers. Simply having a service animal does not give you the right to impinge on others’ sense of personal safety and comfort.

Housing Laws

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. 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.

Employment Laws

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.

Public Spaces

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.