- An emotional support dog provides comfort and companionship for its owner.
- You can qualify for an ESA if you have anxiety, PTSD, cancer, epilepsy, diabetes, and more.
- ESAs are allowed to live with you despite "no pets" policies from buildings or landlords.
- Visit Insider's Health Reference library for more advice.
Pets can be a source of immense comfort, but they can be especially helpful for people with conditions like depression or epilepsy.
If you have a qualifying condition, you can opt to register your furry friend as an emotional support animal (ESA). Emotional support animals are often dogs because dogs have been bred for centuries to connect with humans.
Here's what you need to know about what qualifies you for an emotional support dog and their legal rights.
What is an emotional support dog?
Emotional support dogs aren't just pets. "The purpose of an emotional support dog is to help reduce the impairment related to a health or mental health condition," says Janet Hoy-Gerlach, PhD, LISW-S, a professor of social work at the University of Toledo.
But that doesn't mean your dog needs specific training. Emotional support dogs can help just by interacting or being with their owners, says Aubrey H. Fine, EdD, a licensed psychologist and professor at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.
According to Fine, an emotional support dog may be helpful because:
- Petting a dog might help calm you down if you're having a panic attack.
- Taking care of a dog might give you a purpose if you have severe depression. "A dog may help a person with depression to keep from socially isolating by getting that person to go outside for walks," Fine says.
- Having a dog guarding your home may help reduce fear caused by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
What is the difference between ESAs and service dogs?
Emotional support dogs only need to provide comfort, whereas service dogs are trained to perform tangible tasks for their owner.
For example, a service dog might help a blind person navigate the streets or seek help if their owner has a seizure.
Unlike emotional support animals, service dogs "have access practically anywhere the general public is allowed, under various US federal and state laws," Morris says.
What conditions qualify you to have an emotional support dog?
The only requirement for ESAs is that you have a disability and the animal helps with your symptoms.
The Fair Housing Act lists several mental health disorders that qualify as a disability, including:
Many physical health issues also qualify as a disability, including:
- Traumatic brain injury
- Multiple sclerosis
- Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)
"As long as the emotional support animal significantly helps with the person's disability and a medical professional supports this, the particular condition doesn't matter," Morris says.
How to register an emotional support dog
There is no central ESA registry or governing body. And despite what some websites may claim, ESA owners "don't need to pay money to an online site to register, certify, or purchase identification cards or vests for their ESAs," Hoy-Gerlach says.
You also don't need an evaluation from an expert disability evaluator. These evaluations can be very costly and may not be worth it, Hoy-Gerlach says.
Instead, your doctor or a mental health provider like a therapist can provide a letter verifying that you need an emotional support dog to reduce impairment from a disability. The letter will need to specify which disability you have and how the dog helps you.
Once you have this letter, your dog is protected under the Fair Housing Act and you can send a copy to any landlord or housing provider.
What makes a good emotional support dog?
Dogs that are very connected or want to be around their owners tend to make good emotional support dogs, says Fine. Though any dog breed can be an emotional support animal, affectionate breeds like poodles, Labrador retrievers, or French bulldogs may be good options.
When choosing a dog, you should focus on what qualities would help you with your disability. "A person who is seeking a quiet "couch potato" lap dog is looking for a very different animal than a person seeking a lively playful dog to help motivate them to go for long walks or runs," Hoy-Gerlach says.
Calmer dog breeds like greyhounds, corgis, and Pomeranians may be a soothing presence for their owners, while energetic dachshunds and Yorkshire terriers may help get you moving.
"Veterinarians, dog trainers, and humane society/animal shelter staff can be tremendously helpful in finding a good match for a given person," Hoy-Gerlach says.
Emotional support dogs can play a valuable role in treating or helping their owners cope with a disability.
ESAs don't have the same privileges as service dogs, but they are protected under housing discrimination laws.
If you have a disability and you think your dog is acting as an emotional support animal, or you want to add an ESA to your treatment, talk to your doctor about your best option.