Ducks. Alligators. Peacocks.
These are just a few of the many animals claimed to serve as emotional support animals (ESA). Perhaps some of them do, but others are suspect.
Unfortunately, pet owners have taken advantage of a system intended for individuals suffering from anxiety, depression, or phobias. This misuse has led to several state legislatures—Missouri included—enacting new laws to crack down on fraud committed by those who want to avoid paying housing or travel fees associated with their pet.
What does this mean for ESA laws in Missouri?
Keep reading to learn more.
Understanding the Role of Emotional Support Animals
The primary role of an emotional support animal is to be a companion that provides emotional support. Their presence is enough to make you feel better. However, because giving comfort is not a trained behavior, ESAs are not considered assistance service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Unlike service dog owners, emotional support animal owners have limited legal rights. Even then, to exercise such rights, an ESA letter or letter of diagnosis from a licensed healthcare professional is required. ESA owners don’t have unlimited access to public spaces like service animals do. Instead, the Fair Housing Act mandates “reasonable accommodations” regarding ESAs.
The spread of animals serving as ESAs has become a concern for landlords, airlines, and other businesses that have fallen victims to ESA owners taking advantage of the system. The result? States are cracking down.
Here is what you need to know about having an emotional support animal in Missouri.
ESAs Are NOT Service Animals
Emotional support animals do not have the same rights as service animals. The distinction doesn’t make them any less necessary; if you’re the owner of an ESA, you know how important they are.
ESAs differ from service animals in the following ways:
- The law treats them as pets, not working animals.
- Owners cannot take them to areas that restrict pets.
- They don’t have to go everywhere their owners go.
- They don’t require intense and specialized training.
You may benefit from having your emotional support animal undergo training to become a service animal. However, to qualify for a service dog, the individual must have a disability, which the ADA defines as a physical or mental impairment. If you are eligible, your emotional support animal could complete the training to become a service dog, giving you all the same protections.
ESA Owners Must Obtain a Letter From a Licensed Healthcare Professional
To qualify for an emotional support animal, the only document that you need is an ESA letter from a licensed healthcare professional. This letter establishes that the individual has a mental or emotional health condition that requires an ESA as part of the treatment. Common reasons people get an ESA letter include depression, PTSD, severe anxiety, or phobias.
An ESA letter needs to have the following characteristics:
- The healthcare professional’s license number
- The signature of a licensed healthcare professional
- A date indicating the letter isn’t older than one year
- The licensed healthcare professional’s contact information
The ESA letter will also state that you have a condition that qualifies you for an ESA. It explains that the animal is necessary for you to live comfortably and helps with symptoms caused by the diagnosed condition you have. While not required, sometimes the letter will include the specific animal and breed of your animal.
Having a legitimate ESA letter will help landlords, airlines, and businesses understand that your animal serves an essential function.
Misrepresenting an ESA Could Mean Legal Trouble
In 2020, Missouri’s governor signed a law that makes it a misdemeanor to misrepresent an ESA deliberately. The law prohibits people from using harnesses or vests on their pets to make it seem like they’re an emotional support animal when they’re not. It also prohibits individuals from providing false ESA documents to landlords.
Some individuals go as far as purchasing fake ESA letters. This misrepresentation has increased the number of disreputable online services that sell fake letters. The risks of fraud are another reason to understand what an actual emotional support animal letter looks like and the information it needs to have.
If you lie about your pet being an ESA or a service dog, you could get into legal trouble. Some people may do this to save money. For example, in 2018, a woman claimed her peacock was a legitimate ESA. Why? She wanted to fly with it free of charge. This issue brings us to our next point: changes within the US Department of Transportation.
ESAs No Longer Can Fly in the Cabin of a Plane
The US Department of Transportation no longer considers ESAs to be service animals. It means airlines aren’t required to accommodate emotional support animals. This act protects only service dogs.
Therefore, if you want your ESA to fly in the cabin with you, you’ll need to pay a fee. Your animal will need to be brought on as a carry-on and stowed under your seat. Unfortunately, this will not work for you if you have a large ESA.
ESAs Qualify for Reasonable Housing Accommodations
Under the Fair Housing Act (and Section 504), Missouri ESA owners have the following rights:
- The ESA must receive reasonable accommodations.
- The ESA is exempt from weight, size, and breed restrictions.
- The ESA is exempt from pet fees and deposits (it doesn’t apply to damages caused by the animal).
Landlords in Missouri can face charges and fines for not respecting the rights of ESA owners, consequently, failure to fulfill their Fair Housing obligations regarding ESAs.
Landlords Are Well Within Their Rights to Ask for Proof
Landlords can ask for proof that your pet is an ESA prescribed by a doctor. When they do, it’s essential to give them an up-to-date ESA letter.
If you’re traveling, it’s even more so important to keep the registration up to date. Otherwise, hotels and other rentals can deny access to your pet. Having your proof packed and ready to go will make travel much more manageable.
While landlords can ask for proof, they’re not entitled to request information beyond an ESA letter. They can’t ask to see medical records or inquire about the tenant’s mental and emotional health. You’re never required to give your landlord a copy of your specific diagnosis or health history.
ESA Laws in Missouri: Final Thoughts
Staying up to date with ESA laws in Missouri will allow you to represent yourself and your emotional support animal best.
ESAs are not service animals which means they have different rights under the ADA and Fair Housing Act. Knowing these rights will help you understand that landlords have the right to see this letter (but nothing else). If traveling, it would be best to check in your animal, and if you get caught misrepresenting an ESA, you could be facing legal trouble. And finally, every ESA needs a valid letter written and handed over by a licensed healthcare professional.
Have you yet to register your emotional support animal and receive a legitimate ESA letter? Get started today!