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What’s the Deal with Emotional Support Dogs?

Have you ever been on an airplane where you’ve seen a dog sitting under a seat or in its owner’s lap and thought to yourself, Wait, why isn’t that dog in a crate? Well, that’s because it’s probably an emotional support animal (ESA). Here, everything you’ve wondered about ESA dogs.

So, what exactly is an emotional support animal?
ESAs are companion animals that medical professionals (such as a psychiatrist or appropriate licensed professional) prescribe to patients with physical, psychiatric or intellectual disabilities. For example, an ESA might be prescribed to ease a person’s debilitating anxiety or PTSD. 

Cool, but why do you need a special letter?
While ESAs are not classified under the Americans with Disabilities Act (aka not every state allows ESAs in public spaces like restaurants or grocery stores), they are federally protected via the Air Carrier Access Act and Fair Housing Act. This means that people can take their ESAs on flights or into no-pet housing. Of course, the correct paperwork has to be signed off on before you can just bring your Goldendoodle aboard a jet or into a no-dogs apartment building. 

What’s the difference between an emotional support animal and a service animal?
While you typically see dog ESAs, they can actually be almost any kind of common domestic animal—cats, ferrets (yep), rabbits, etc. There is no special training for ESAs (they must, however, be housebroken and well-behaved). Service animals, on the other hand, are defined as dogs (or, as of recently, miniature horses) and are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a with a disability (like a seeing-eye dog). 

Can I pet an emotional support animal?
Since ESAs don’t require special vests or harnesses, you probably won’t know it’s an emotional support animal. But whether it is or isn’t, you should always politely ask the owner if it’s OK to say hi before you do.

RELATED: 8 Things to Know Before Flying with Your Pet

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