The Truth about Emotional Support Animals


Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) are becoming increasingly more common, but a lot of people still seem to be unsure about what they are, how and if they differ from Service Animals, and the benefits they bring to their owners. So let’s clear some of this up!


An Emotional Support Animal provides a therapeutic benefit to individuals with emotional or psychological “disabilities”. This can include people diagnosed with depressive disorders, anxiety or panic disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and more by a licensed mental health provider.

This means you’re looking for a counselor, therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist with some of these letters after their names:

  • LMHC (Licensed Mental Health Counselor)
  • LPC (Licensed Professional Counselor)
  • LMFT (Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist)
  • LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker)
  • PsyD (Doctorate of Psychology)
  • PhD (Doctorate degree in psychology or other related field)
  • MD (Doctor of Medicine, specializing in psychiatry)


How Are ESAs Different From Service Animals?

Here are some of the differences between ESAs and Service Animals:

    ADA Approved Service Animals

    • As of 2011 only dogs are recognized as Service Animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)       **Separate ADA regulations exist for miniature horses as service animals.
    • Individually trained (not necessarily professionally) to perform tasks for people with disabilities. These tasks are directly related to the person's disability
    • Protected by ADA, FHAA, and the ACAA
    • Are allowed access to apartments, airplanes, AND public spaces, such as restaurants, movie theaters, and stores where other animals are not usually permitted, as long as it doesn't pose a direct threat to public health & safety.

    Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)

    • No specific species: ESAs can be a cat, dog, or other species of animal
    • Not specifically trained to perform certain tasks
    • Protected by the Fair Housing Amendment Act (FHAA) and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA)
    • Allowed access only to apartments (even those with no-pet or breed/weigh discriminatory policies) and on airplanes with necessary documentation





    Here are some similarities of ESAs and Service Animals

    • Not required to wear a vest or other identifying accessories
    • Must be able to behave appropriately in public
    • Can be any breed of dog (remember Service Animals are just dogs, ESAs can be other species)

    One of the biggest differences between what qualifies as an Emotional Support Animal and a Service Animal is how they are trained. If an animal is specifically trained to sense a panic or anxiety attack and take action to avoid or de-escalate it, then that animal would qualify under the ADA as a Service Animal. This is because the animal is trained to perform a task (stop or decrease intensity of the oncoming anxiety or panic attack) that is directly related to the disability (anxiety or panic disorder, in this case).


    What Benefits Do ESAs Provide?

    ESAs can simply be an animal companion to their human with an emotional or psychological disability. The ESA’s presence provides the owner with emotional support, which helps them function more effectively in their homes and while traveling.

    Additionally, ESAs can be used in Animal Assisted Therapy or as part of other psychotherapeutic or medical treatments.


    ESAs & Housing

    • A housing provider’s “no-pet policy” does not apply to ESAs.
    • Other animals in the residence who are not designated ESAs are subject to this kind of policy.
    • Breed and/or weight discriminatory policies do not apply to an ESA.
    • Pet deposits and fees required by a housing provider do not apply to ESAs.
    • Waiving policies, fees, and deposits for an ESA is considered a reasonable accommodation and requires documentation from one of those professionals mentioned earlier.
    • The housing provider CANNOT ask for details about your disability, only that one exists for you and the animal provides emotional support
    • You can still be charged fees for any damage caused by the animal
    • If your animal is not housebroken or is not behaving appropriately in common areas, you can be asked to find more private routes in and out of your building
    • Allergies are not a reason for a “reasonable request for accommodation” to be denied. For cases of other residents with severe allergies, housing providers will work to limit interaction between the person with a severe allergy and the person with an ESA.

    ESAs & Air Carriers

    • An airline’s size or breed restrictions for pets do not apply to ESAs UNLESS they are too large or heavy to be accommodated in the cabin according to animal health and safety regulations.
    • Airlines are not required to permit snakes, rodents, spiders, reptiles, or ferrets.
    • Airlines can require specific documentation (dated within 1 year) and/or 48 hours notice for ESAs
    • Keep in mind, the protections from the ACAA only apply to U.S. airlines. Foreign airlines do not have to comply with the ACAA and may have different laws or regulations.


    How Can My Animal Become an ESA?

    Despite many sites popping up claiming to help you “register” your animal as an ESA, there is no official registry for this. Beware of these kinds of sites.

    If you believe you believe symptoms you’re experiencing align with a psychological or emotional disorder and want your pet as an ESA:

    • Find a licensed therapist, counselor, or psychiatrist qualified to make that kind of diagnosis and provide the help you need
    • Look for someone experienced in documentation for ESAs
    • After establishing the therapeutic relationship and determining your symptoms do align with a psychological disorder, ask your provider for documentation for your housing provider or airline to request a reasonable accommodation from them.


    If you are not flying with your animal and do not have extra fees or limitations related to having your animal in your residence, it is unlikely you will need any documentation and can continue receiving the emotional support you receive from your animal!




    The Problem with Mindfulness

    In recent years, Mindfulness Practice has gotten a lot of attention. It is part of recommended treatments for everything: from anxiety and depression (see archived articles on this blog) to cancer and pain management. There are numerous physical and mental health benefits from mindfulness meditation, and it is practically risk-free, so what could be the problem?


    Despite my obvious affection for it, I do take issue with how mindfulness meditation is sometimes approached, particularly considering its growing popularity. People hear how effectively it helps high stress--and other conditions--so they download apps or stream videos on YouTube and give it a whirl! Though these resources house fantastic guided mindfulness practices, this is often where the problem begins.

    Mindfulness is defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn as, “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally”. When mindfulness meditation is practiced with the focus on relieving stress, it can frequently have the opposite effect. We start setting expectations for ourselves and for mindfulness, like:

    • “I should be able to do this, it’s so simple”
    • “This is supposed to be relaxing. Why don’t I feel relaxed?”
    • “This isn’t working. There must be something wrong with me”
    • “I’ve done this a few times now and I’m still depressed/anxious/stressed. I knew this wouldn’t work.”

    When this happens, we lose sight of the fact that mindfulness is meant to be practiced with the sole expectation of being present in that moment, nonjudgmentally. That’s the goal. All the other things are wonderful, helpful, fantastic side effects.

    So if you’ve given up on the idea that mindfulness could be for you, or if you’ve tried practicing mindfulness and thought it was ineffective, I urge you to reconsider.

    Try starting with the sole aim of paying attention to the present moment, without judgment. It sounds simple but this goal is plenty lofty.


    January is here again, bringing with it the season of resolutions to change your life and be the best you you’ve always wanted to be! Sadly, these resolutions will likely unravel unceremoniously around February.


    It’s not an optimistic outlook but statistically, most of our New Year’s resolutions are doomed before they begin. As a counselor, I of course have hope and faith that people really can change themselves and their lives for the better--in fact, I’ve helped many in that process! So why do I have such a dreary outlook at this so-called fresh start?

    The problem with New Year’s resolutions is mostly about how we approach them and what the word resolution implies. Resolution is a firm decision to do or not do something and often it is seen as a way of solving a problem. This means that when we make a resolution, we are essentially planning to here-and-now completely change a large set of behaviors in our lives to solve a core issue. That’s quite a tall order! No wonder we fail year after year. That’s simply not how behavior change works.

    In order to change behavior, there not only has to be knowledge or awareness that there is a problem, but there has to be a plan for how to approach the change. There must be an intense motivation internally as well as externally to follow that plan (meaning drive and accountability, respectively). A large part of behavior change is altering the way you think, creating new neural pathways, and minimizing a desire to cheat or quit.


    So how do you set yourself up for success when you have that serious intention to make a big change in your life?


    Change Wording

    Words are important and more powerful than we can imagine. Consider revamping your typical “resolution” to be a theme for the year. Create a simple mantra-like word or short phrase you can repeat to yourself frequently. Maybe this will be your year of “Yes!” (taking chances and trying new things), the year of “No” (setting firm, new boundaries that will be healthy for you), or the year of “Healthy Decisions” (focusing on exercising, hydrating, and eating well in addition to losing weight). Whatever it is, make it meaningful to you and descriptive of the change you’re working on!


    Goldilocks Specificality

    You always hear about the importance of setting specific, measurable goals in order to achieve success. Being vague can set you up for failure but being too specific can as well! Your focus can become too narrow on severely specific goals that either guide you toward finding ways of getting out of it or encourage you to achieve at an unreasonably high cost. Work instead of having an area of focus, like the aforementioned theme, with some specific parameters. So create a map for change but leave yourself room to re-route when you encounter roadblocks.


    Take Steps, Not Leaps

    Many of us are aware that small steps toward a larger goal is a better way to approach change, but what does that actually look like? It’s thinking about the thing you want to change on a daily basis and refraining from getting ahead of yourself. Break your big goal down into smaller ones, and then smaller still, until you get down to a step you can take today. Each day, keep your focus on the efforts you can make now that will put you in more alignment with your chosen theme.


    Set Rewards in Theme

    Rewards are vital to success of a goal and should be celebrated at small and big milestones alike! Yay!

    But here’s the catch. The reward you set should be appropriate for the amount of progress made and should not just be in alignment with your theme but be encouraging you to continue living your change.

    For instance, if your goal is for better physical health, it will not be productive to set a reward of a cupcake. That’s allowing you to continue treating food as reward, celebration, or entertainment when you’re trying to retrain your brain to consider it sustenance. A more appropriate reward might be some new exercise gear that makes you excited about your next workout or a healthy cookbook that gets you jazzed about quinoa and kale!

    If better money management is your aim, maybe treat yourself to a day of enjoying free entertainment in your city, like a walking tour, city-sponsored events, or an afternoon at the library with a thermos of coffee you made at home.

    This is an opportunity to get creative and have fun exploring the fruits of behavior change and will help drive that inner motivation to keep up the hard work!



    Find a friend or several people with whom you can share your progress, regresses, or stagnation. Choose people you can be open with and invite them to call you out if you’re making excuses and looking for ways to quit or cheat.



    Overall, one of the best ways to help you make the change you want in your life is to really, actually want it--not just because January 1st came around again! If you think of your goal on December 28th, then that’s a perfect day to get started and start living your change. If on March 5th you realize you haven’t been living your theme for a couple weeks, get back on the horse right away while you ponder how to better navigate whatever roadblock you encountered in the future!