What is an Emotional Support Animal and what do they need?

My son and his Emotional Support Animal - a rescued cat named Dust.
My son and his Emotional Support Animal – a rescued cat named Dust.

My oldest son has Asperger’s syndrome and lives on his own.  He is responsible for himself and all his basic living needs, but I became profoundly concerned by his increasing isolation.  People on the autism spectrum usually have social issues and have difficulties forming friendships.  Since he’s an adult and high-functioning, precious little help exists in our neck of the woods.

I noticed his anxiety increasing and depression deepening.  As a life-long animal lover, I felt a pet would benefit him.  He agreed and frequently asked for a cat.  However, his apartment building has a strict no-pet policy.  My mom, my husband, and I started researching service animals.  We decided that Daniel didn’t need an animal with that level of training.  He just needed a pet.

We discovered emotional support animals.  The best part was that, legally, Daniel’s apartment building couldn’t legally deny his appeal.  So, we set the wheels in motion.  After he had followed the approval process, we contacted the local no-kill animal shelter, and Daniel adopted an adorable 6-month-old cat he named Dust.

My son's ESA - Dust - rescued from the local Humane Society.
My son’s ESA – Dust – rescued from the local Humane Society.

What is the difference between an Emotional Support Animal and Service Animal?

A service animal experiences rigorous training.  The animal’s training begins while the critter is still a baby.  First, they learn to form bonds and attachments.  They attend obedience training.  Eventually, they learn their specialized skills.  Some service animals serve as assistants to the vision or hearing impaired.  Others detect early seizure symptoms.  Some receive training to open doors for medical professionals or to dial 911 on special assistive devices.

An emotional support animal has no such training, and their only job is to provide comfort to people with psychiatric disorders such as autism and anxiety.  In a nutshell, ESAs are prescription pets.

How do you get and Emotional Support Animal?

If you want the right to have a pet, you must see a mental health professional.  Then, your professional needs to provide a letter stating that you are their patient, you are under their care for an emotional disability, and they feel it’s in your best interest to have an emotional support animal.  The letter should include your mental health professional’s signature, the date, and information about the person’s state license.

What are the laws surrounding an Emotional Support Animal (ESA)?

The Air Carrier Access Act 49 U.S.C. 41705, Dept. of Transportation 14 C.F.R. Part 382 requires that airlines allow ESA’s on the plane without the need for a pet fee.  They may require you to present the letter certifying your need for an ESA.  Airlines can still ban non-standards pets, such as spiders, snakes, rodents, or ferrets, however.   Read this document from Transportation.gov for more information.

The Fair Housing Amendment Act of 1988 requires landlords to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities.  Accommodation includes exempting them from no-pet policies.  Additionally, landlords may not charge a monthly pet fee for an emotional support animal.  But, they can ask for a pet deposit or seek damages for repairs.   Find out more on the Humane Society’s website.  The Humane Society page also links to some legal resources.

Additionally, my son’s landlord requires him to carry pet insurance in case his cat mauls someone.

What kind of animal can an Emotional Support Animal be?

An ESA can be any animal.  If you fly frequently, however, airlines do not have to accept every kind of animal on the plane, so you may want to limit your selection to a more traditional type of pet and keep it small – such as a small cat or dog that fits into a TSA-approved sized travel carrier.  Unlike trained service animals, airlines are not required to allow ESAs out of their carriers during a flight.

What do you need for an Emotional Support Animal?

Of course, you will need whatever every pet needs: food, bowls, leashes.  And, your pet may have special species-specific needs such as litter boxes, cat trees, and toys.

If you wish to travel, your ESA requires safe transport.  For smaller animals, like cats, a comfortable carrier should fit the bill. Look for a spacious, well-ventilated carrier that enables your furry friend to switch positions comfortably.  Most animals prefer a firm floor for stability covered with soft padding.  The best carriers offer easy access through a window large enough for your hand, but too small for the pet to escape.

On a personal note, I prefer soft-sided carriers that zip shut.  On more than one occasion, the door clasp on my hard carrier popped open.  My mom took her cat to the vet.  When leaving the vet’s office, her hard carrier’s door popped open.  The cat jumped from the cage, ran across several lanes of traffic and disappeared.  We put lost posters all over the vicinity.  Friends and family scoured the area for days.  Several weeks later, after we’d all but given up looking for Tom-Kitty, someone spotted him at a local seafood restaurant (smart cat) and called my mother.

Dust enjoying the view in her Next-Level Pet Carrier
Dust enjoying the view in her Next-Level Pet Carrier

Next-Level Pet Carrier

I recently received the perfect soft-sided pet carrier from Next Level pet for Daniel’s kitty.  In addition to meeting TSA size standards and all my prerequisites, it comes with a padded shoulder strap and a small leash.  It measures 10.5 x 18 x 11 inches, so the carrier provides Dust ample room to move around.  The padded fleece flooring removes for easy cleaning in case of pet accidents.

The zippers move smoothly, and I love that the carrier doesn’t hinder your pet’s visibility.  It has a nameplate.  While handy for flying, if you must leave your pet overnight at the vet or a kennel, the nameplate may prevent carrier mixups.

To see it in action, watch this video:

Special thanks to Next-Level Pet for providing my son with a pet carrier. He genuinely loves it.  Please note that I am not a lawyer and this blog article should in no way be construed as legal advice.  These were my experiences helping my son jump through the legal hoops of obtaining an emotional support animal.  Please contact an attorney in your area for legal advice.

How do you get an emotional support animal? Does your landlord have to allow it? Can I take one on a plane? Do I have to pay pet fees? What do I need to travel with one? I answer these and other questions in this blog post.
How do you get an emotional support animal? Does your landlord have to allow it? Can I take one on a plane? Do I have to pay pet fees? What do I need to travel with one? I answer these and other questions in this blog post.
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Happily married to the love of my life. It's just us, our 5 cats, and our beautiful woods. I'm loving living back in the Florida panhandle being close to family. I love cooking, living a healthy lifestyle, taking care of our cozy home, and trying new things.

We enjoy hosting parties and my husband and I are both avid gamers. You can find me on PS4 as SunshineFlaGirl. We also play tabletop RPGs and eurogames.

Alicia Taylor

Happily married to the love of my life. It's just us, our 5 cats, and our beautiful woods. I'm loving living back in the Florida panhandle being close to family. I love cooking, living a healthy lifestyle, taking care of our cozy home, and trying new things.

We enjoy hosting parties and my husband and I are both avid gamers. You can find me on PS4 as SunshineFlaGirl. We also play tabletop RPGs and eurogames.


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  • Dawn Nieves

    December 13, 2017 - 12:56 pm

    It’s amazing what a comfort animals can be. Glad to see your son happy!

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  • Ashley Sparks Mullins

    January 27, 2017 - 9:56 am

    I just met an ESA the other day at my hair salon. The dog was so sweet. He was actually part wolf.

    Dust is such a cutie! I’m so glad your son got a furry companion. Hopefully this has helped him a ton!

  • startraci

    January 27, 2017 - 8:43 am

    Wow! I did not know this. My husband struggles with PTSD. We have a cat and dog that we got for the family but it is good to know that there are protections in place for people who need these animals. Your son looks very happy with that kitty, btw.

    • Alicia Taylor

      January 27, 2017 - 8:48 am

      Yes – there are protections. However, before your husband can claim your pets as emotional support animals, he will need a letter from a licensed therapist. Dust has made a world of difference in Daniel’s life.

  • Laura Funk

    January 27, 2017 - 8:20 am

    Dust is adorable and the carrying house is pretty awesome too. Sounds like a match made in heaven for those two

    • Alicia Taylor

      January 27, 2017 - 8:22 am

      Dust has changed Daniel’s life – and he’s happier now that he can take her places.

  • Claudia Krusch

    January 26, 2017 - 9:53 pm

    I have seen people respond so well when they are able to see their pets after being in Hospital. I think Support pets should be allowed to go everywhere with you.

  • Judy

    January 26, 2017 - 9:23 pm

    We have never been ones to want a pet. We had careers and were too busy for one. After an illness that made it impossible for me to work and I had to quit my job that I loved, I went into a really dark depression. I was alone most of the day and I would just cry. One day a stray feral cat came in our yard and I could tell she was going to have kittens. I started putting food out for her. Several weeks later she brought her kittens and I fed them too. Slowly, without me even being aware of it my days were getting better. Just because I had something else that needed me. I could not hold them because they were too wild but they brought me so much joy just watching them play and watching them enjoy the food I was giving to them. One of the kittens got tame enough that he adopted me and now he has took over our lives. Yep, I would say that is emotional support 🙂

    • Alicia Taylor

      January 26, 2017 - 9:28 pm

      He genuinely loves you – and is protective, as well. I’m glad he found you. Maybe he sensed something you didn’t realize – you needed a friend.

  • Mandy Carter

    January 26, 2017 - 6:08 pm

    We have a local nonprofit that brings emotional support animals to children’s advocacy centers to help with abused and neglected kids. Such a great cause and extremely helpful.

    • Alicia Taylor

      January 26, 2017 - 7:49 pm

      Our hospital does that with critically ill children, as well. These animals, however, are a little different than the emotional support animals that individuals have. The animals brought into hospitals require more training, for starters. I think that’s a wonderful program. Animals have a healing effect on humans. I believe it’s because it takes us closer to nature.

  • Tina

    January 26, 2017 - 6:01 pm

    I never knew that any animal could be a support animal. What a great program. I am happy your son has a companion.

    • Alicia Taylor

      January 26, 2017 - 7:50 pm

      Yes – but it’s generally better to adopt one that will fit into a living room (and is more traditional). Think about trying to get a horse into an apartment? Also, airlines aren’t required to let exotic animals into the cabin.

    • Alicia Taylor

      January 27, 2017 - 7:20 am

      I am too! Thank you.

  • Rebecca Bryant

    January 26, 2017 - 5:51 pm

    Animals are amazing. I am in awe of how they know when we need them. When i am feeling bad my cat will curl up next to me and lay her paw on my leg or shoulder as if to say I’m here for you. It is amazing. You son’s cat is too cute. So happy he has thi s amazing furry friend.

    • Alicia Taylor

      January 26, 2017 - 7:52 pm

      I agree, completely. I have five cats. You can see them all in the video. Except, Chief. You can only see his ears. It’s like he has a sixth sense about a camera. LOL. If I am even just a little blue, they are all right there.

  • Emily

    January 26, 2017 - 3:38 pm

    This is amazing that an animal can be so in-tuned to emotions and be there for people. My dogs are not trained in anyway for that but they can definitely sense when I am frustrated. I wonder if eventually the emotional support animals can have the same rights as service animals when it comes to being in public places. That would help out so many.

    • Alicia Taylor

      January 26, 2017 - 3:48 pm

      I’m not sure if they should – mainly because they may lack training. A misbehaving animal can disrupt shoppers and prevent other people from enjoying their outings.

  • Angela Banister

    January 26, 2017 - 1:24 pm

    Great article Alicia, I never knew there was such a thing. I bet Daniel and Dust are going to be best of friends for a long time.
    Also thanks for the info on the pet carrier. I have been looking for a good one for our furbaby.

    • Alicia Taylor

      January 26, 2017 - 1:44 pm

      I’m sure Buzz would love his own little hideaway! And yes, Daniel and Dust are bonding nicely. It’s going to take some time because she’s not cuddly, yet. It takes time to get beyond that kitten phase, but he did say that she’s been a great help for his anxiety and depression.

  • Reesa

    January 26, 2017 - 1:15 pm

    I was just talking about this with some friends after I flew this weekend. There was a dog on the plane for just this purpose! It’s amazing what animals can do for us!

    • Alicia Taylor

      January 26, 2017 - 1:42 pm

      It really is! The important thing to remember is that these animals do not have the same rights as Service Animals – but they still make wonderful, calming companions.

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