Is your Emotional Support Animal (ESA) Letter Legitimate?
What Current ESA Laws and Guidelines Have to Say
Emotional support animals (ESAs) are a class of assistance animals regulated under Federal and State laws, including the Fair Housing Act and the Air Carrier Access Act. The U.S. Department of Housing and the U.S. Department of Transportation issue guidelines that protect owners of ESAs and the special privileges they enjoy.
Despite the public availability of these rules and guidelines, there is an astonishing amount of confusion and misleading information in public discourse and on the internet regarding what constitutes legitimate documentation for an emotional support animal.
In this article we will dispel the myths, rumors and outright lies about ESA letters and documents by reviewing the current state of ESA rules. We will examine what exactly is required for ESA accommodation for housing and air travel.
This article is intended to benefit: 1. Anyone considering an emotional support animal who is confused about what exactly they need to do in order to actually qualify for one, 2. Current ESA owners who want peace of mind knowing that their ESA documentation is legitimate and 3. Landlords, co-ops, HOAs and other housing providers that want to validate a tenant’s ESA request without breaking Fair Housing rules.
Can you request documented proof for an ESA?
The first question we should address is whether requesting documented proof for an emotional support animal is even allowed. Some claim that it is not, while others say it is but then are mistaken about the types of documents you can request. The uncertainty over this issue likely stems from the confusion that exists regarding the difference between ESAs and service animals.
Under Fair Housing rules, both service animals and ESAs are assistance animals that are not considered regular pets. They must be allowed to live with their owners, even in buildings that ban pets, free of charge. Any building rules applicable to normal pets like breed or weight limitations are inapplicable to assistance animals.
The primary difference between a service animal and an ESA is that a service animal is trained to perform tasks for a disabled person, whereas an ESA does not require any special training and provides comfort and support just through their presence and companionship.
For service animals, if it is “readily apparent that the animal is trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability”, then the housing provider cannot make any inquiries regarding the tenant’s disability or need for their service animal. Examples of this would include a service dog that is pulling its handler’s wheelchair, or a guide dog for someone visually impaired.
If it is not readily apparent what service the animal is providing, the landlord can ask two questions: 1. Is the animal required because of a disability? and 2. What work or task has the animal been trained to perform? If the answer to either question is no, then the animal is not a service animal, but may be an emotional support animal.
If a tenant is claiming that their pet is an ESA, then the landlord is entitled to ask the tenant for supporting documentation. Similar rules apply for air travel: If the passenger has a readily apparent need for the service animal or can answer the two questions, they do not need any supporting documentation. However, if the passenger is flying with an emotional support animal, the airline will insist on seeing proper documentation.
What type of documentation do you need for an ESA?
Regarding the type of documentation you need to prove a pet is an ESA, the U.S. Department of Housing has stated the following:
“Reasonably supporting information often consists of information from a licensed health care professional…..general to the condition but specific as to the individual with a disability and the assistance or therapeutic emotional support provided by the animal.”
Under HUD guidelines, legitimate documentation for an ESA comes in the form of a letter of recommendation from a licensed healthcare professional. The letter will establish that the tenant has a disability and a need for an emotional support animal. Note that under HUD rules, the letter should be “general to the condition”. As we will discuss, landlords are never permitted to require disclosures regarding a specific diagnosis or the tenant’s medical history.
The Air Carrier Access Act has a similar documentation requirement for ESAs travelling on planes. The airlines can request:
“….current documentation (i.e., no older than one year from the date of the passenger’s scheduled initial flight) on the letterhead of a licensed mental health professional…”
For both housing accommodation and air travel, legitimate documentation comes in the form of an ESA letter from a licensed professional.
Who can issue an ESA letter?
After receiving an ESA letter, housing providers sometimes question whether the source of the letter was legitimate. For example, some landlords are under the mistaken impression that only doctors can “prescribe” emotional support animals, when in actuality most ESA letters are from other types of licensed professionals that specialize in mental health.
HUD and the DOT have specifically named the following types of licensed professionals as capable of writing an ESA letter: psychiatrists, psychologists, physician’s assistants, nurse practitioners, nurses, and social workers. Licensed counselors and marriage and family therapists also commonly issue ESA letters. The DOT notes that medical doctors “specifically treating the passenger’s mental or emotional disability” can also write ESA letters.
In addition, licensed professionals who provide services online can also issue ESA letters. HUD notes the following in its guidance: “…many legitimate, licensed health care professionals deliver services remotely, including over the internet.”
The use of online therapists has become more popular and a necessity due to COVID-19 related lockdowns and stay-at-home orders. The FHA is federal law that applies to every State, but many States also have ESA housing laws similar to the FHA. Florida recently passed legislation regarding ESAs that also endorses the use of telehealth providers for ESA evaluations and letters.
Housing providers seeking to verify an ESA letter with the licensed professional should proceed with some caution. HUD states that it defers to the judgment of licensed professionals in issuing their ESA recommendations. HUD relies on “professionals to provide accurate information to the best of their personal knowledge, consistent with their professional obligations.” Housing providers are not allowed to interrogate the healthcare provider regarding the tenant’s diagnosis or impairments. In addition, if a tenant has a valid ESA letter, the landlord cannot also insist on the professional providing notarized statements or making statements under penalty of perjury.
What type of documentation doesn’t work for an ESA?
There are various forms of ESA documentation available for sale online, much of which is insufficient to legitimately qualify an animal as an ESA. HUD warns tenants against using sites that are potentially scams and are not delivering what they promise. For example, HUD notes there are websites that “sell certificates, registrations, and licensing documents for assistance animals.” HUD states that documentation from such sites “is not, by itself, sufficient to reliably establish that an individual has a non-observable disability or disability-related need for an assistance animal.”
As previously discussed, legitimate documented proof for an emotional support animal comes in the form of a letter from a licensed professional that has evaluated the tenant. An ESA registration, certificate, ID, license, harness, patch or any other accessory purchased online does not meet the standards set under FHA and ACAA rules for legitimate ESA documentation. State laws governing ESAs also do not recognize these types of documents and accessories.
For housing providers, the lesson is that if a tenant presents a certificate, registration number, ID or license, they are entitled to request additional evidence in the form of an ESA letter from a licensed healthcare professional. Conversely, some landlords insist on seeing certificates, registrations, IDs, etc. even after being presented with an ESA letter, which is not a justifiable request under HUD guidelines.
What should a legitimate ESA letter contain?
An ESA letter for purposes of housing and air travel will contain similar information, but with slight differences in wording to track the verbiage found in the FHA and ACAA. Any ESA letter should contain the healthcare professional’s information, including their license number, the jurisdiction it was issued in and their contact.
For purposes of housing, an ESA letter should state the following: 1. the tenant’s name and the type of animal being recommended; 2. whether the patient has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits at least one major activity or major bodily function; and 3. whether the tenant needs the animal because it provides therapeutic emotional support to alleviate a symptom or effect of the tenant’s disability.
It is important to note again that landlords are not allowed to demand specific details regarding the tenant’s condition or medical history in the letter. Thus, while the healthcare professional will state the tenant has a mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity which requires the support of an ESA, for patient confidentiality reasons they will generally not delve into specifics regarding the tenant’s condition.
For those wondering what constitutes a “major life activity” and how an ESA may provide support, the HUD gives some examples. HUD describes major life activities as things like breathing, performing manual tasks, caring for one’s self, learning, speaking, and working. Sleep issues are another common impairment ESA owners have.
ESAs provide support to their owners in countless ways, but HUD cites as examples ESAs that are involved in “assisting a person with a mental illness to leave the isolation of home or to interact with others, “enabling a person to deal with the symptoms or effects of major depression by providing a reason to live” or just “providing emotional support that alleviates at least one identified symptom or effect of a physical or mental impairment.”
An ESA letter for air travel will have similar language. For purposes of air travel, the ESA letter should state the passenger has a mental or emotional condition recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and that the passenger needs their ESA as an accommodation for air travel.
Is ESADoctors.com a Legitimate Site for ESA Letters?
For those looking to qualify for an emotional support animal online, ESADoctors is a highly rated choice for legitimate ESA documentation. Thousands of ESA owners rely on ESADoctors.com year after year for two important reasons: 1. ESA Doctors works with licensed professionals who understand the technical requirements for ESA qualification, and 2. ESA Doctors supports its clients throughout the sometimes stressful process to apply for ESA accommodation with a landlord or airline.
ESA Doctors works with healthcare professionals who are licensed for the client’s state and have expertise in the therapeutic benefits of emotional support animals. ESA Doctors does not sell certifications, registrations or IDs, which as previously discussed are not legally sufficient to qualify an emotional support animal. ESA Doctors will pair the client with a licensed healthcare professional that is capable of writing ESA recommendations. The licensed professional will help assess whether the client meets the criteria for an emotional support animal for purposes of housing and/or air travel, and issue a recommendation letter for qualifying clients. Each of these therapists will provide a license number which can be independently searched and verified on your State’s public database for licensed professionals.
These licensed professionals understand emotional support animal guidelines and the proper procedures for providing documented proof for an ESA. They are familiar with the statutory requirements for ESAs and are experienced in issuing effective letters. They are also available for verification requests from housing providers and airlines, and put their contact, license number and signature on every letter they write.
ESA Doctors has also earned various third-party accolades regarding its services. ESA Doctors carries a 5 Star Award of Excellence for customer service and is also accredited by the Better Business Bureau (BBB). ESA Doctors provides exceptional support for its clients throughout the ESA accommodation process and believes in advocating for the ESA community, and fighting against ESA fraud.
With all of the confusing and sometimes conflicting information online about ESAs, it’s important to go straight to the source when it comes to understanding ESA documentation — federal and State laws, and HUD and DOT guidelines. This article provides a summary of these rules, but we encourage anyone wanting to learn more to read these publicly available rules.
Understanding ESA rules is equally important for ESA owners and housing providers. ESA owners with a solid understanding of ESA documentation will avoid scams, be better equipped to stand up for themselves to landlords and airline agents, and feel more confident in their ability to request accommodation.
Housing providers with an understanding of ESA rules will be able to differentiate between tenants with a legitimate need for an ESA versus ones just trying to skirt pet rules. Lawsuits regarding ESAs are unfortunately not uncommon, and it is important for landlords to understand the boundaries of what they can and cannot do when it comes to confirming a tenant’s ESA request.