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Emotional Support Animals for Children With Disabilities

A boy on his bed hugs his emotional support dog.Emotional support animals (ESAs) are pets prescribed by a licensed mental health professional for those with disabling mental illness. While emotional support animals are commonly cats and dogs, any animal can serve in this capacity, such as a bird, rabbit, or reptile. Caring for the animal benefits a patient’s mental health.

All participants in a survey by the Assistance Dog Center (TARSQ) and CertaPet reported that having an emotional support dog improved their quality of life. ESAs increased feelings of security, independence, and energy, reduced stress, and enhanced sleep. They provided motivation, structure, joy, and companionship and fostered social interactions. These animals also helped participants reduce panic attacks and handle work obligations.

Emotional Support Animal Letter

When a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist concludes that an individual needs an animal for mental health reasons, the professional writes a letter, known as an emotional support animal letter, that gives the patient special privileges. The letter certifies that the patient has a mental disability giving rise to a legitimate need for the animal’s companionship and support. The emotional support animal letter can help the patient receive housing accommodations.

Housing Accommodations for Emotional Support Animals

The Fair Housing Act protects the rights of individuals with emotional support animals.

  • If you rent your home, you do not have to pay pet rent or a pet deposit for an emotional support animal.
  • Landlords must accept your ESA regardless of a pet ban or restriction.
  • The FHA requires college and university housing to include ESAs.

The Difference Between Service Dogs and ESAs

While federal law protects those with emotional support animals from housing discrimination, ESAs do not receive the same accommodations as service dogs. The Americans with Disabilities Act defines service dogs as canines with specialized training to perform specific tasks for people with disabilities. For instance, guide dogs help blind people navigate, and psychiatric service dogs perform tasks such as reminding individuals to take medications.

Service dogs are allowed anywhere open to the public, while ESAs are only permitted where pets are, such as pet-friendly stores, restaurants, and parks.

Airline Travel

In January 2021, the Department of Transportation updated its rules on emotional support animals. Airlines must accommodate service dogs but not ESAs. The general rules for pet travel apply to ESAs.

How to Know if Your Child Needs an Emotional Support Animal

Children with special needs can benefit from the companionship, responsibility, and structure that an emotional support animal provides.

Children with a variety of mental disabilities could benefit from emotional support animals, including those experiencing:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

If your child has autism, interacting with an animal could also be therapeutic. A Journal of Pediatric Nursing survey found that 94 of children with autism developed strong bonds with the family pet, typically a dog. Interacting with the pet helped children gain social skills.

Speak to your child’s mental health provider to learn more about whether an emotional support animal could benefit your child. Your child’s teacher or pediatrician may also recommend an ESA. To receive housing accommodations, you will need to obtain an emotional support animal letter from a mental health professional.

How to Find an Emotional Support Animal

Since emotional support animals do not require special training, obtaining an ESA can be straightforward. You can find an ESA anywhere you can find a pet, such as a local shelter, breeder, or pet store.

Your animal may qualify for an ESA if you already have a pet. Before inviting a new animal into your home, speak to a mental health professional.

Connect With Your Special Needs Planning Attorney

If you have an emotional support animal or think you might benefit from one, consider speaking your special needs planning attorney. They can help you understand what accommodations you could receive for your emotional support animal.

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