Guest post by Lexi Carr

Knowing the difference between an Emotional Support Animal and a Service Animal

An emotional support animal (ESA), or a support animal, is a pet whose presence is deemed by a professional to provide benefits for people who suffer from mental illnesses. Those who qualify have mental health conditions that can disrupt one’s day-to-day life activities and include conditions like anxiety disorder, panic attacks, and clinical depression.

ESAs differ from service animals in that service animals are specifically trained to perform a variety of tasks (i.e., detect seizures before they strike, provide deep pressure therapy, bring medication to their handler.) While it is typical for a dog to be registered as an ESA, that doesn’t necessarily mean that other animals cannot, as there are no rules that specify what an ESA animal should be. This means that, if you have a cat, and you are deemed qualified by a mental health professional—you can register your feline companion as an ESA. However, there are quite a few things that you have to consider before registering your cat as an emotional service animal.

There isn’t an “official” registration for an Emotional Support cat

The only kind of registration that you will need is your ESA letter from a therapist. There is no official register that you are legally required to sign your cat up for. Additionally, an emotional support cat doesn’t have to wear a special vest or tag of any sort, declaring your companion’s status as a support animal.

Beware of scammers

Because the process for registering your cat as an ESA is fairly simple and straightforward and not at all as stringent as registering a service animal, there are many companies taking advantage of this fact and claim that they can “officially certify” your ESA. Without any prior knowledge of ESAs, a pet owner could end up paying money for an illegitimate document or phony certification. Unlike support animals, an ESA is not guaranteed into any venue.

Your ESA is covered under the Fair Housing Act

This act states that your landlord must provide reasonable accommodations to you and your ESA; however, if it imposes any financial or administrative strain on your landlord, your landlord can also reject your ESA through legal proceedings. This is also possible if you have an ESA that is very large (i.e., a horse.)

Housing that isn’t covered by FHA

Rental spaces of four units or less (where the owner is actually living in one of the units), single family homes that are sold/rented by the owner without the use of a broker, and housing that is operated by private clubs and religious organizations that restrict occupancy to their members are not covered by FHA.

Emotional Support Animals and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA)

Your emotional service animal may be able to travel with you inside the airplane cabin but due to significant abuse of this regulation, it is currently under scrutiny and the rules may change. Obtaining a letter from a licensed professional is crucial in having your companion fly with you. Make sure you have the letter dated no later than one year before you use it. Contact your airline a few days before your scheduled flight to make proper arrangements.

Emotional Support Animals and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, emotional support animals are not considered service animals. This is a really important distinction because support animals do not enjoy the same type of access as service animals.  Services animals are specifically trained to perform a specific task for their owner and they are not viewed as pets, but workers. Service animals help blind people get around, help those with epilepsy know when a seizure will strike and so much more. Today, the ADA will only consider dogs as service animals and they must undergo the appropriate certification.  Cats were previously allowed to be service animals, provided they were trained. Those who have a service cat that was previously certified are usually grandfathered into the program… but cats are no longer allowed to be considered service animals.

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