Is Your Dog ESA Eligible?

This past spring, a video of a woman boarding a plane with a full-grown peacock caused quite a stir on social media. As passengers’ eyes glance around in bewilderment, you can hear someone ask if the peacock was an emotional support animal, to which the woman replied “yes,” as the peacock sat contently in her lap. 

From kangaroos and pigs, to snakes and alligators, Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) have grown in popularity in the past few years, and have been popping up on flights across the nation. But the rights and regulations surrounding ESAs have remained a bit hazy. 

So what exactly is an emotional support animal, and can you register your dog as one? 

The answer depends on you, personally, along with a few guides and regulations. To save you some time sifting through the noise and legal verbiage, the Happy Puppy Tips team has broken down the information in this post. Keep reading.

What is an Emotional Support Animal?

A kiss on your hand, a head in your lap, the overwhelming feeling of comfort as your best bud lays beside you – dogs really can be a form of therapy. And while all dogs have a special connection with their owners, they can also, in some way or another, offer emotional support.

However, in order for a dog (or any animal) to legally be considered an Emotional Support Animal (ESA), it must be prescribed by a registered doctor or mental health professional as a means of treatment for a diagnosed mental illness. 

As an example, we know that owning a dog can relieve anxiety, and provides a sense of purpose and focus in life. So, if a patient is suffering from severe anxiety and has trouble focusing, a psychiatrist can prescribe an ESA as part of a patient’s treatment for their anxiety. 

How Do ESAs Differ from Service Animals?

There’s a common misconception that ESAs and Service Animals are the same, but just  because your pup can cuddle on cue doesn’t mean public Service Animal laws apply to them.  

The key differentiator between the two is ESAs are prescribed to provide support through companionship (something dogs instinctively do); Service Animals, on the other hand, are specifically trained to perform tasks or jobs directly related to a person’s disability. 

For example, service dogs are trained to alert visually impaired owners of an obstacle to keep them safe as they get around. They can provide pressure and aid for an owner suffering from a PTSD-induced panic attack. These are specific tasks they have mastered through intensive training to complete as a service for their owners. Comfort and support, on the other hand, come naturally. 

Is Your Dog ESA Eligible? 

Just because your pup makes you feel better after a ruff day doesn’t mean they are automatically qualified to become an ESA. While there’s certainly less rigor and training required than if you were to register your dog as a Service Animal, there are still a few things to consider:

  • Can your dog behave in public? While there’s no formal process for checking this, legally registered ESAs are expected to be well-behaved and manageable in public (ie: your dog doesn’t cause a commotion in public, including when around other dogs).  
  • Do you have a legally qualifying mental health or psychiatric disability? To legally register an ESA, owners must have a qualifying mental health or psychiatric disability diagnosed by a licensed mental health professional, which must be documented in a prescription letter from your doctor or psychiatrist.  
  • Does your health benefit from your dog’s company? Technically speaking, your dog must provide some kind of relief or aid to your mental health or psychiatric disability, such as relieving stress or anxiety, to be prescribed as a legal ESA. 

Finally, there are no hard rules about who can and can’t have or benefit from an ESA. If you think registering your dog as an ESA may be right for you, have a conversation with your doctor or mental health professional. They’ll be able to guide you on next steps to registering your pup as a prescribed treatment.

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