Also called companion animals, emotional support animals (ESAs) provide comfort to people with emotional or psychological issues, which may include depression, anxiety, social phobias, or panic attacks, for example. In contrast, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a “service animal” typically refers to a dog that has been trained to do specific tasks for people with physical, psychiatric, or intellectual disabilities to help them in their day-to-day activities—such as a guide dog for the blind or a dog that signals when its owner is about to have a seizure. “Therapy animals” provide support for people affected by illness, disaster, or other stressors.
Requirements for obtaining an ESA are fairly loose. There are no national standards, and no registration or certification for the animal is needed. Basically, you just have to be diagnosed with a psychological condition that would benefit from having the animal. Airlines and property managers will likely require a letter from a licensed mental health professional or medical doctor who can provide a diagnosis. It must be on letterhead and declare, among other things, the particular psychological condition you have and that the animal is important for your psychological well-being.
Many people can benefit from the companionship of an emotional support animal, reducing or even eliminating the need to take medication, such as for anxiety or depression. But what constitutes an actual need is debatable, and undoubtedly there is plenty of fraud, with an untold number of well-adjusted, psychologically healthy people taking advantage of this practice to circumvent no-pet policies.
If you think you have a legitimate need for an ESA, we recommend seeing a mental health professional who can evaluate you and help you find ways to cope with psychological issues—including possibly prescribing a companion animal.