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What is an Emotional Support Animal?

Psychiatric service dogs like this one go through extensive training that isn't required of ESAs.
Psychiatric service dogs like this one go through extensive training that isn’t required of ESAs.

Have you ever wished your furry friend could tag along to lunch or on errands? With the right certification, they may be able to. The recent rise in registered emotional support animals is causing quite a stir—is it necessary or a sham?

No matter what kind of pet you have, one thing they all share is their loving ability to cheer up a bad day and make good days better. Now, you can make their companionship official. A therapist can “prescribe” a pet’s company to improve one’s mood, and with their note and a registration fee, your pet enters a database of certified emotional support animals.

What does this mean, exactly? Unlike service animals—which go through rigorous training to perform specific tasks for people with physical or mental disabilities—there’s no set of criteria that qualifies them as emotional support animals and they cannot legally go anywhere their humans go (though there are lots of funny stories about people trying). But they can, according to the Fair Housing Act, live in housing where pets are prohibited, and they can fly in a plane’s cabin at no additional charge according to the Air Carrier Access Act. Critics say ESAs are a trend that undermines the legitimacy of qualified service animals, while supporters insist that they can be a powerful “medicine.”

What do you think? Would you consider certifying your lovable pet as an ESA?