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Emotional support animals (ESAs) can be an important lifeline for many people struggling with emotional or mental disorders.
However, unlike guide and service dogs, the purpose of these dogs and the laws surrounding them are not well understood.
For those living in the state of California, this article will go through everything you need to know about ESAs and the laws regarding them.
It will cover:
- What is an emotional support animal
- How to qualify for an emotional support animal
- Which state and federal laws cover emotional support animals
- The rights of emotional support animals and their owners in regards to:
- Public Spaces
This article should provide you with everything you need to know whether you have your own ESA or whether you are dealing with a friend, employee, neighbor, or so forth that benefits from the support of an ESA.
What Is An Emotional Support Animal?
Emotional support animals are animals that are prescribed by a medical professional to provide companionship and emotional support to individuals who need it.
The types of people who may qualify for an ESA vary greatly and include individuals suffering from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and a plethora of other challenges.
Emotional support animals can be any type of animal including dogs, cats, birds, lizards, and horses. There are no restrictions, though dogs are one of the most common ESAs.
Emotional support animals differ from service animals, such as guide dogs, in terms of what they are trained to do.
Service animals are trained to perform specific tasks that specifically relate to the disability of their owner. For example:
- Guide dogs are trained to help blind or partially sighted individuals navigate;
- Seizure alert dogs are trained to either watch over their owner or fetch help in the case of a seizure
- Diabetes dogs are trained to alert their owner when their blood sugar drops
- Psychiatric support dogs are trained to perform specific tasks, such as maintaining the attention of their owner when on the street so they do not walk into traffic.
Emotional support animals, by contrast, are simply tasked with giving love and companionship and not to perform specific tasks as they relate to a specific disability.
While some ESAs may be trained to perform anxiety-reducing practices such as pressure therapy, they are still not considered service animals.
This is important because both federal and state laws for service animals and emotional support animals are different.
How To Qualify For An Emotional Support Animal?
Qualifying for an emotional support animal is often described as receiving an ESA prescription, as the process greatly resembles receiving a doctor’s prescription.
In order to legitimately qualify for an emotional support animal, you must be diagnosed with a mental or emotional condition as stated in the American Disabilities Act, though the details of this condition need not appear in the letter.
Conditions generally considered appropriate for an ESA include:
- Attention deficit disorder
- Cognitive disorder
- General anxiety disorder
- Learning disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Severe anxiety
There is no official registration system for ESAs; rather as the owner of an ESA, you need a letter from a licensed medical professional stating your need for an emotional support animal.
This letter applies to you, and simply needs to state that you need the support of an ESA. The letter does not need to state which animal is acting as your ESA, and you do not need to register your animal as an ESA with any organization.
For this letter to be recognized in the state of California, it must be signed by someone who is licensed to practice medicine in the state of California and must be delivered on their practice’s letterhead.
The letter should be renewed every year, and letters more than 12 months old do not need to be accepted as proof of the need for an ESA.
Which State And Federal Laws Cover Emotional Support Animals?
There are a number of federal and state laws that relate specifically to the rights of emotional support animals.
When state and federal laws do not align, whichever law provides the greatest liberty and flexibility should be applied.
Currently, in the state of California, federal law dictates the rights of ESAs in regards to housing and transportation. There is state law providing additional benefits in the workplace for ESA.
The relevant federal laws are:
The relevant state laws are:
The Rights Of Emotional Support Animals And Their Owners
Both California state and federal law state that individuals with emotional support animals have the right for their animal to live in their home with them.
This regulation applies even to housing with restrictions on animals. Landlords must make an exception and allow the animal to enter the home as well.
In addition, it is illegal for individuals to be asked to pay anything extra for housing as a result of the presence of their ESA. This includes a restriction against requiring an additional deposit to protect against the presence of the animal.
The landlord may ask to see the individual’s ESA letter as proof that they require the emotional support animal. They do not need to accept a letter that is more than 12 months old.
The landlord is within their rights to contact the practice that issues the ESA letter in order to verify its legitimacy. But they are only within their rights to confirm that the ESA letter has been legitimately provided. They cannot ask for any details about the patient or the reasons why the ESA letter has been issued.
Employment is the only area in which California state law is significantly different from federal law.
Federal law leaves it to the discretion of the employer to decide whether or not to allow an ESA in the workplace though the law does encourage employers to accommodate ESAs just as they would any other disability-related support, as long as it is safe to do so.
California takes this a step further and requires that employers take every reasonable step to accommodate ESAs in the workplace as part of their efforts not to discriminate against disability.
This law applies both to existing employees and also applicants, and employers are not able to discriminate against applicants on the basis that they require the support of an emotional support animal.
The old rules stated emotional support animals must be able to travel in the cabin. However, these times are a changing. Scroll down to see the new ruling.
According to federal law, emotional support animals must be able to travel in the cabin with their owner when they are traveling on domestic aircraft. Airlines cannot apply additional charges for carrying the animal; however, airlines do have some discretion when it comes to the type and size of animals. For example, airlines are not required to carry horses or large snakes in their cabins. Passengers must advise the airline that they will be traveling with their ESA at least 48 hours before flight departure, and if requested, must provide their valid ESA letter. These days, most airlines do not require an ESA letter, but they rather ask passengers to sign a waiver vouching for the behavior of their animal on the flight. The same laws do not extend towards other types of public transport, such as trains and buses. While service dogs must be granted access to all modes of transport, whether public or private, the same rights do not extend to ESAs.
New Rules For Traveling With Your Emotional Support Animal
There have been several highly publicized incidents of Emotional Support Animals expressing aggressive behavior and attacking passengers and airline employees.
This is likely the result of new rules set out by the Department of Transportation.
As of December 2nd, 2020, The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) made updates to their rules on traveling with ESA’s and Service Animals.
The DOT revised Air Carrier Access Act and no longer considers an emotional support animal to be a service animal.
What does this mean? In my eyes, airlines are no longer required to allow emotional support animals to travel in the cabin with their owner.
As a result of these changes many airlines have banned Emotional Support Animals.
The key difference in laws relating to service animals and emotional support animals are in regards to the right of access to public spaces.
While service animals, specifically including psychiatric service dogs in the state of California, are granted the right of public access, this does not extend to emotional support animals.
According to California laws, service dogs (though not all types of animals) that have been trained to perform specific tasks in relation to a disability must be given right of access to:
- Any place to which the general public is invited (including restaurants, hotels, shops, government buildings, etc.)
- Medical facilities such as hospitals and clinics
- Any public conveyance or mode of transportation, whether private or public
In order to determine whether the dog in questions is indeed a service dog, functionaries are allowed to ask only:
- Whether the dog is required because of a disability
- What work the dog is trained to perform
No additional proof that the dog is registered or certified as a service dog is required.
But when it comes to emotional support animals, it is down to the discretion of functionaries whether or not to grant access. They are completely within their rights to deny access to ESAs.
Does California Recognize Emotional Support Animals?
Yes, the state of California recognizes emotional support animals and has laws in place to ensure that individuals can be accompanied by their ESAs in the most important areas.
This includes laws that ensure an individual can live with their ESA without incurring additional charges, even when pets are restricted. There are also laws that ensure individuals can be accompanied by the ESA in the workplace and they cannot be discriminated against as a result of their use of an ESA.
ESAs are also allowed to travel with their owners on commercial aircraft as required by federal law. However, there are no laws giving ESAs access to other forms of transport. – See above for the new restrictions for ESA’s and commercial aircrafts.
In addition, unlike service dogs, ESAs do not have the right of access to public spaces in general and can be turned away.
How Do I Register My Dog As An Emotional Support Animal In California?
There is no registry for emotional support animals, either in California or on a national level.
The process of gaining an ESA is about you. You must be diagnosed with a condition that is considered serious enough to warrant the support of an ESA. This includes a variety of mental and emotional challenges, including PTSD, anxiety, depression, and so forth.
You must then obtain an ESA letter from a licensed medical practitioner. If you are in the state of California, they must also be licensed in the state. The letter must say you require the support of an ESA. It does not need to give details as to why or provide any details about the animal.
You are then free to choose an animal to act as your ESA. While there are no restrictions on the animal, they are expected to be appropriately trained to be in public spaces.
Can A Business Refuse An Emotional Support Animal?
Yes, businesses are allowed to refuse entry to emotional support animals.
Unlike service dogs, such as guide dogs and psychiatric support animals, ESAs do not have the right to public access. This means that it is down to the discretion of a business owner whether or not to allow an ESA access to the premises.
In California, however, the rules are not the same for employers. When it comes to employees, business owners must take all reasonable steps within their power to enable their employees to bring ESAs to work with them.
Refusing to make reasonable accommodations for the ESAs or employees is considered against the disability discrimination act.
Can A Landlord Refuse An ESA?
Landlords are required to allow residents to keep ESAs within their homes, even if the property is governed by a no-pets policy. ESAs, as well as service animals, are exempt from this restriction and must be allowed to stay at the property with their owner.
In addition, landlords are not allowed to request additional charges to cover the presence of the ESA. This includes not being able to increase deposits due to the presence of the animal.
A landlord is within their rights to ask to see your ESA letter to verify your right to an ESA. They are also allowed to verify the veracity of the letter with the medical practitioner that issues it. However, they are not allowed to request any specific information about the condition that justifies the need for an ESA.
Do Emotional Support Animals Count Toward Pet Limits?
Emotional support animals are not considered pets and, therefore, do not count towards pet limits.
For example, if you live somewhere with a one pet limit and you already have a cat, and then you get a dog as an ESA, your landlord cannot require you to remove the cat from the premises as in excess of their one pet policy.
ESA are not pets, and do not preclude you from owning other pets.
The laws and rights as they extend to emotional support animals can be confusing. The detail of the law varies from state to state, and not everyone is always clear about the differences between service animals and emotional support animals.
The key difference between these two types of animals is that service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks as they relate to supporting a person with a disability. So, service dogs include animals such as guide dogs and diabetes detection dogs.
Emotional support animals, in contrast, provide love, support, and companionship, and not to perform specific tasks of assistance.
It is not always obvious to other people whether a dog is a service dog or an ESA. But in order to qualify for either type of dog, you will require a letter from a medical practitioner. This letter will indicate which type of animal you are eligible for.
If you have an emotional support animal in the state of California, you have the right for them to live with you in any type of housing, even if pets are restricted, without incurring additional expense. Your employer must also take all viable steps to accommodate your ESA at work.
Emotional support animals are also allowed to travel on commercial aircraft with their owner for no additional charge, as long as the airline is advised at least 48 hours in advance. As of this writing the DOT has updated their policy on Emotional Support Animals and no longer consider them Service Animals. Therefore many airlines no longer allows ESA’s on their flights.
However, that is the limit of access right for ESAs. Unlike service dogs, they do not have a general right of access to public spaces, including other forms of public transport. Similarly, functionaries do not need to let them into restaurants, shopping centers, theatres, on buses, and so forth.
As time passes and the importance of therapies such as emotional support animals becomes better understood, laws regarding the right of access for ESAs will also expand, in California and beyond.
We already see that since this article was first written changes to the laws have not expanded, but instead have become more strict for Emotional Support Animals.
Do you have an emotional support animal in California?
Share your experiences and insights in the comments section below or via our social media.
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