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Emotional Support Animal Laws You Must Know

Disclaimer: laws about emotional support animals and service animals change frequently and aren’t black and white. This article is a general guide, not a legal document. Seek legal advice for any questions or complaints you may have.

Emotional support animals are certified to provide emotional support during tough times and may benefit those with anxiety, depression, phobias, PTSD, or OCD. However, they don’t have the same legal protections of a service dog.

If you have an emotional support animal, you should be fully aware of the laws and your rights. It can affect everything from housing to traveling.

In this article, we’ll share the essential information surrounding emotional support animal law and the benefits of registering your pet as an ESA. 

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The first thing to know is which acts do and do not protect your rights. If nothing else, you want to be able to cite the laws that guarantee protection for you and your ESA in a situation where someone contests your right to own one.

While many people refer to the Americans with Disabilities Act when speaking about the laws that protect those with ESAs, it does not extend to emotional support animals and instead only refers to service dogs. 

What’s important to know about the ADA is that it states that a person is legally allowed to bring a trained service dog into any public area. However, this does not include ESAs, so public establishments (restaurants, cafes, etc.) may deny your emotional support dog access to a public space at any time.

Fair Housing Act (FHA)

The emotional support animal law most commonly known is the Fair Housing Act, also referred to as the FHA. It outlines rules for reasonable accommodation of tenants with ESAs. 

Overseen by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the act defines reasonable accommodation as allowing assistance animals, including emotional support animals, to live on the property.

As long as owners with a verified ESA letter for their pet ask for this reasonable accommodation, the landlord can’t deny them housing. The same principle applies to the right to access for disabled persons who use a wheelchair; they cannot be denied housing due to their disability.

Other benefits of the FHA include the prohibition of charging a pet fee or pet rent for emotional support animals. The exception is that if an ESA causes significant damage to the property, the landlord may request fees to cover the repairs. 

Finally, a landlord cannot question the disability or require the ESA to wear anything that identifies their service status. There is an exception, however. If accommodating the emotional support animal on the property would cause an “undue financial burden” on the owner, it can be grounds for denial. Also, if the animal is a threat to the safety of others, the landlord may reject the tenant’s application. 

One thing that’s incredibly important to note concerns owner-occupied buildings with four units or fewer or single-family homes rented by the owner without a leasing agent. These properties are not bound to these rules regarding ESAs. They’re exempt in most cases and reserve the right to deny emotional support animals on their property.

Federal Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA)

The FHA passed in 1968, and the Federal Fair Housing Amendments Act supplemented it when it passed twenty years later. The 1988 amendment added that no person may be denied housing based on disability status, as well as by race, color, gender, or heritage. 

This addition meant that any person with a disability who could provide official documentation couldn’t be denied housing due to their condition or anything related, such as a wheelchair or emotional support animal. 

This amendment does not cover any harm or endangerment to fellow tenants or property owners, and the handler remains responsible for the ESA’s behavior.

The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA)

If you intend to travel with your ESA, you should know about the Air Carrier Access Act. This act passed in 1989 and prohibits the discrimination of persons with disabilities traveling on airplanes. 

New guidance as of January 2021 notes that the allowance of ESAs on airline flights may vary depending on the airline itself. While emotional support animals aren’t barred from traveling in passenger cabins, they’re not a protected class either. 

The US DOT’s final ruling on traveling by air with assistance animals announced it no longer considers emotional support animals to be service animals, leaving it up to the airlines to make the final call. The new rule also restricts the definition of a ‘service animal’ to dogs and states that airlines don’t have to recognize emotional suppport animals as service animals, giving them license to qualify them as ‘pets’ instead. 

For those who’s dogs aren’t trained as service animals, you may consider getting your pooch up to par if you require them for airline travel. If you’re traveling in the continental United States with your ESA that isn’t a dog, it’s best to opt for ground travel where possible.

Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Another law that covers service animal territory is the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. People often mistakenly confuse this as protection for emotional support animals. Section 504 of this act clearly states that any person with a disability may not be excluded or discriminated against because of their disability. 

This is a great relief for those with service dogs trained to assist them with a specific task. However, it does not extend to emotional support animals.

ESA Rules and Rights on Flights

Emotional support animals are no longer protected to fly on US airlines. They’re qualified and consider pets by airline carriers

However, some international carriers do allow for ESAs. If you’re flying with your ESA on an international carrier, te following is what the public typically has to comply with on flights where ESAs are permitted. 

  • Airlines may not charge fees for the ESA.
  • Airlines often accommodate dog and cat ESAs.
  • Airlines may restrict the number of ESAs to one dog or cat per passenger.
  • Airlines cannot deny ESAs for weight unless the animal is too heavy to accommodate in the cabin.
  • Airlines generally will not deny ESAs based on breed, but only if the animal poses a health or safety risk.
  • Airlines may request early notice to verify all documentation before takeoff.
  • Airlines will typically deny ESAs for unusual animals, including rodents, reptiles, and spiders.

Every airline has its policies regarding emotional support animals. As of early 2021, most airlines have taken advantage of the changes to the ACAA law, which no longer requires airlines to accommodate emotional support animals. Thanks to this law, many airlines have stopped accepting ESAs in flight cabins.

Some North American domestic airlines that still allow ESAs include Westjet, Latam Airlines, and Volaris. For international flights, Air France, Singapore Air, China Airlines, Lufthansa, and Asiana Air all allow emotional support dogs (though additional rules may apply).

Domestic carriers will still allow small dogs to come aboard the aircraft cabin if the dog or cat is under 20 pounds and can usually stay inside a crate underneath the seat the entire flight, regardless of whether they are ESA certified or not.

Frequently Asked Questions

Still have questions about the laws that protect emotional support animals and their owners, especially in travel and lodging scenarios? Here are the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions.

Can a Landlord Deny My Emotional Support Animal According to the Law?

Most of the time, no, but the law covers a few exceptions, including:

If the animal poses a threat to the health or safety of others nearby
If the landlord will take on an undue financial burden from allowing the ESA, or 
If it is an owner-occupied unit with less than four units or a single-family home leased directly by the landlord without an agent.

I Have a Disability. Is My Emotional Support Animal Considered a Service Animal?

Not necessarily. A service animal must perform work that benefits a person with a disability, not just provide companionship or emotional support. This work must be tied directly to the disability. 

Someone who suffers from seizures, for example, may have a service dog trained to assist their companion during a seizure or detect them before they occur.

What Happens if My ESA Is Disruptive, Dangerous, or Threatening?

A landlord or airline always has the right to refuse accommodation to an ESA that is threatening the safety of others or causing significant disruptions.

What are the benefits of registering an emotional support animal?
There are legal protections for housing and flying if you have an ESA, and valid documentation makes it easier to insist on your rights. 

Emotional support animals provide many benefits outside of the legal framework, including alleviating stress, anxiety, and depression, improving social engagement, reducing pain, and more. Put simply, it’s understandable you’d want your ESA to accompany you to many places. ESA registration ensures you have all the knowledge you need to make the correct and legal decision.

Final Thoughts

Emotional support animal law is confusing, complex, and a bit of a gray area. It doesn’t always overlap with the laws protecting service animals, meaning your rights aren’t always the same as those extended to people with disabilities. 

Understanding which laws do and do not cover emotional support animals will help you book travel and find housing with an ESA. And ultimately, these laws will help you determine if applying for an ESA letter is the right decision for you.