Emotional Support Animal Certification

 

Emotional Support Animal | Emotional Support Animal Letter
 

Requests for emotional support animal (ESA) certification are on the rise since the word is getting out that HUD acknowledges the benefit of ESAs for their owners with disabilities. Since 1973, federal protection has existed under the Rehabilitation Act on behalf of disabled persons. Specifically, under section 504, the statute holds that discrimination against the disabled is illegal for any program or activity that accepts federal funding. 

It clarifies that any person with a disability in the United States who would otherwise qualify for a program or activity as defined in the statute must not be excluded from participating based only on the condition of a disability. Further, he or she cannot be denied the benefits of such a program, nor should he or she become the subject of discrimination under the same as long as it receives assistance from the federal government in the form of funding.

The Federal Fair Housing Act Amendment (FHAA) expanded the scope of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and the Fair Housing Act (FHA) making it unlawful to discriminate against anyone when it comes to buying or renting a dwelling due to a handicap. This protection extends to persons who reside in the dwelling or intend to reside there as well as any persons associated with the renter or buyer once it is made available, rented or sold.

In this context, it becomes a requirement of any landlord or seller to make a reasonable accommodation on behalf of a disabled person so as not to deny housing based solely on an individual’s disability. There is case law supporting the interpretation of the regulation. Therefore, it constitutes discrimination for anyone who refuses to accommodate persons with disabilities under any policies, rules or services particularly when making the accommodations means a handicapped person will be equally allowed the opportunity to enjoy the dwelling as would anyone else without a disability and without such accommodations. The accommodation also includes any public or common use areas on the property.

In recognizing the positive benefits emotional support animals bring to people with disabilities, HUD has provided regulations that allow them to live with their owners in otherwise designated “non-pet” housing without the requirement of a pet deposit fee. While there remain a few exceptions, exercising this right does require documentation that a person with disabilities has a legitimate need for an ESA. 

In the case of ESAs, FHAct/Section 504 establishes a “no pets” waiver as a reasonable accommodation as long as the tenant has a disability and would be otherwise qualified to receive the benefit. The tenant must not be denied the benefit based upon having a disability alone. It follows that the tenant must comply with the rental agreement including being able to keep the place clean with an animal living there. If there are designated areas on the property for walking the animal, the tenant must comply with those restrictions.

The way a tenant seeking a “no pets” waiver for an ESA must meet the burden of proof is by providing a letter obtained from a mental health professional that states the tenant has a mental or emotional disability. This letter must also reflect that the animal is necessary for the individual to help reduce the symptoms of a disability and that the animal be permitted to live with its owner in the dwelling unit. 

 

ESA Certification

What is an Emotional Support Animal Certification?

An emotional support animal certification is actually a letter from a licensed mental health professional attesting to the fact that the individual under care owns a companion animal that helps ease the symptoms of their disability just by being there. An ESA is a pet that is not necessarily trained to perform any particular functions to assist its owner other than the comfort it brings. The presence of an emotional support animal provides a close, emotional bond between animal and owner. 

The letter must be on the treating practitioner’s letterhead. It must identify the type of license the practitioner has, its number and date of licensing. It must also state the following:

  • The individual who owns the pet is a current patient of that practitioner
  • The patient is receiving treatment for a mental disability under the practitioner’s care
  • The mental disability must be found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders IV or V
  • The diagnosed disability substantially prohibits or limits at least one major life activity
  • The practitioner prescribes the emotional support animal as part of the necessary treatment for the patient’s mental health

For clarification, major life activities include such functions as caring for oneself, executing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, bending, lifting, speaking, breathing, reading, learning, thinking, concentrating, working and communicating. 

There is research to support the efficacy of having an ESA to assist in treatment. In addition to the psychological effects, there are physiological benefits from the positive social interaction that occurs with a pet. They have a calming effect that lowers anxiety. They help to alleviate a sense of loneliness and enhance social interaction potentially improving social engagement. They normalize vital functions such as heart rate and blood pressure, help to reduce pain, stress and the effects of depression by increasing a sense of pleasure. At the same time, it is important for a professional counselor to assess whether the patient is able to care for the animal without subjecting it to neglect or harm if the mental or emotional impairment is so severe. 

The emotional support animal certification letter is provided directly to the person who is requesting an ESA live in the home with him or her. Once the patient has the letter, it is up to them with whom they share it. There are protections in place for the patient as the letter does not disclose the particulars of the disability. In general terms, the letter states that the patient has an emotional support animal that alleviates at least one or more of the symptoms of their mental disability. 

The letter may be presented to a landlord, to an airline, to a place of business or anywhere else there may be a concern for the animal’s presence out and among the general public. In terms of housing, the judicial system interprets fair housing rights to extend to college and university housing, which may include dormitories, residence halls and apartments that are owned by the university.

 

Emotional Support Animal Certification Requirements

While the emotional support animal certification does not actually certify the animal, it is prescribed by the individual owner’s licensed therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist. Any licensed mental health professional is able to identify the animal as an integral part of the treatment program structured to bring comfort while reducing negative symptoms of the owner’s emotional or psychological disability. 

For someone to qualify for an ESA, he or she must first be considered emotionally disabled by a licensed mental health professional. An ESA is the patient’s own pet. It is not species limited. It can be any domesticated animal including but not limited to a:

  • Dog
  • Cat
  • Bird
  • Rabbit
  • Mouse
  • Guinea pig
  • Hedgehog
  • Rat 
  • Mini pig
  • Ferret

These animals need no specific training as their presence alone serves to mitigate symptoms associated with the person’s psychological or emotional disability. There is a requirement, however, that the animal be manageable in public without causing a disturbance and without creating a nuisance around or within the home setting. 

There are no qualifying requirements that determine whether or not a specific pet is appropriate to serve as an ESA. There are stipulations from HUD that the animal not be destructive in nature or pose a direct threat to health and safety of anyone. The animal must not interfere with the ability of a public facility to perform its intended purpose. Following the 3-D’s, the pet must not be destructive, disruptive or dangerous. 

 

Who is Authorized to Write a Certification Letter for an Emotional Support Animal?

People seeking emotional support animal certification must look to the professional counselors and other mental health providers. HUD stipulates that those who are seeking a reasonable accommodation for an ESA may be required to provide the proper documentation from a licensed physician, psychiatrist, social worker or other mental health professional attesting that the animal does provide the emotional support that mitigates the symptoms of an existing disability.

Professional counselors are seeing more requests for emotional support animal certification. It is the right of a patient being treated to exercise that right. The professional counselor documents the legitimate need for the ESA. It is up to the professional counselor to properly evaluate whether or not a pet is appropriate to serve as an emotional support. This is a decision that must take into account the general welfare not only of the patient and the ESA, but also of the health and welfare of the general public especially when the animal is to accompany the patient anywhere outside of their home.

With correct oversight in this matter, emotional support animal certification must maintain a higher standard to protect both the treatment for the patient and the entire concept of emotional support animals as a viable treatment option. While federal law does not require that these animals be trained, there is the implication that the animals need not be evaluated. 

Businesses and institutions remain free to impose their own policies in response to emotional support animals that accompany individuals who patronize their establishments. It is easy to see how those who do not follow the prescribed method or uphold the regulations that do exist can make it a bit more complicated for those who do comply.

 

Benefits of Having an ESA Certification

In accordance with the FHAct/Section 504 reasonable accommodation standard, one fundamental benefit of having an ESA Certification is the “no pet” waiver. This makes it possible for those people with a disability to have their emotional support animal comfortably live with them and enjoy reasonable accommodations for the dwelling unit. The provider of the unit may not require a person with disabilities to pay any extra fee or place a deposit as a formal condition of receiving such reasonable accommodations.

People with disabilities who have a pet that brings them comfort and emotional support are already experiencing the benefits a companion animal offers just by having them in their lives. This happy relationship is also a healthy one. Individuals who already have such a pet and who qualify by being under the care of a mental health practitioner can apply for an ESA letter. Protections extend beyond the prescribed benefits for treatment. 

Beyond the Fair Housing protections, there is the Air Carrier Access Act passed in 1990. It works alongside the DOT rules that prohibit discrimination against disabled individuals traveling by air. Under these provisions, airlines cannot refuse or limit transportation or require advanced notice before offering service to disabled persons. Airlines may require advanced notification for certain accommodations, including medical equipment or ESAs. It depends on the airline so it is helpful to check in advance of a trip.

As more emotional support animals are permitted to enter business establishments, there are steps that can be taken to encourage the sense of trust to overcome pet restrictions. When the concern is for the safety of other patrons, individuals can have the pet’s temperament periodically qualified by an expert in order to be able to produce proper documentation that the animal “passed the test.” Of course, each case must be evaluated for its merits, but over time, the relationship between animal and owner may win over the relationship between animal owner and business owner. The American Kennel Club (AKC) has a Canine Good Citizen (CGC) program. That might be a good place to start. 

Advocacy is growing with the Federal Government in support of those with emotional or psychiatric disabilities, with counselors more effectively understanding the federal regulations and the benefit of how all this information better protects the general public. Unfortunately, this does not stop those unscrupulous types who tend to exploit a situation for pure profit. That is why is important to understand the proper way to obtain emotional support animal certification.

Emotional Support Animal Certification

Emotional Support Animal Certification

The Online Dogtor