Emotional Support Animal: Do I need a letter from a doctor? Do I need to register my animal online?

By: Sean Darcy (Dr. Sean Darcy MD)

An Emotional Support Animal is an animal (typically a dog,but there is no legal restriction…so it could be a cat, ferret, bird, miniature pig, etc.) that belongs to a person that is emotionally or psychologically disabled.  In order to qualify as an Emotional Support Animal, a doctor must provide a letter stating that the presence of the service animal is necessary for the patient’s mental health.  The format of the letter has very specific guidelines that must be followed and the doctor must be fully licensed. The animal doesn’t have to be trained to perform any specific task, but you must be able to demonstrate to the doctor that the animal is obedient, calm, and well behaved.

Obtaining this letter from the doctor is necessary in all cases. There are many administrative organizations that claim to have a registry as an Emotional Support Animal that will enable you access with your animal, but aren’t what are needed for dwellings, hotels, rentals, and airlines. A letter by a licensed medical professional is what is required before allowing your animal entry.  As long as the letter you receive from the doctor meets all the guidelines, you will have an official document to help avoid any hassles with businesses and diffuse confrontations from the public.

Flying on commercial airlines:  Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, an Emotional Support Animal is protected to fly in the cabin of a commercial airline without charging the owner any fee.  Advanced notice and presentation of your letter are usually required.  Check in advance with your specific airline to make sure they don’t have any additional requirements. United and American usually require their specific documentation to be signed in advance and faxed to a specific number.

Housing and “no pets”policies:  As far as housing is concerned, Emotional Support Animals are also protected from “no pets” policies under fair housing laws.  The law states that landlords and property managers are to make “reasonable accommodations”for patients with Emotional Support Animals for any and all types of living dwellings regardless of standing “no pets” policies.  Landlords may charge a reasonable fee for allowing the animal into the residence and they may require your doctor to signoff on their own form (separate from the original letter).

So if you have an animal that is necessary for your mental health, and it accompanies you on your daily activities, it makes sense to have it officially registered as an Emotional Support Animal. Even with a letter, some businesses can and will refuse to allow your animal entry, but having it at least gives you something to show them and, as mentioned above, it can also help you to diffuse confrontations. Obtaining a vest that identifies your animal and his or her function is also helpful. We can provide this vest and the ID card for your animal for those who qualify.

Make sure to make copies and keep your original protected so you don’t lose or damage it.  Most doctors will replace it for a small fee, but that won’t help you if you’re in another location. And lastly, make sure you bring along dog poop bags and do your best to make sure your animal doesn’t harm a business in any way. In the end, this system only works if everyone shows mutual consideration.