The difference between emotional support animals and service animals

By: Roger Coryell
Woman and her emotional support dog

California’s new ESA Law AB 468 and its impact

Do your critters help you get through the day with emotional support? Probably. Are they “service animals”? Do they have any special protections or rights?

If your animals provide you with emotional support, they may be considered emotional support animals (ESAs). However, they are not classified as service animals. Service animals are specifically trained to perform tasks that help individuals with disabilities, while ESAs offer comfort and companionship to alleviate mental or emotional distress.

ESAs do have some special protections and rights, but they are limited compared to service animals. In the United States, the two main areas where ESAs have specific protections are housing and air travel.

  1. Housing: Under the Fair Housing Act, landlords must make reasonable accommodations for tenants with ESAs, even if the property has a no-pet policy. However, tenants must have a valid ESA letter from a licensed mental health professional to qualify for these protections.
  2. Air Travel: The Air Carrier Access Act previously allowed ESAs to accompany passengers in the cabin without additional fees. However, as of January 2021, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) revised its travel rules for service animals. The new regulation no longer requires airlines to treat ESAs as service animals. Instead, each airline can now establish its own policy regarding ESAs, which may include fees and other restrictions. So, you must check with your airline for their specific rules and regulations regarding traveling with an emotional support animal.

In contrast, service animals have broader legal protections, including access to most public places, such as restaurants, stores, and hotels, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

It’s crucial to understand the difference between service animals and emotional support animals and their respective rights and protections. Misrepresenting an ESA as a service animal can lead to fines and penalties in some jurisdictions.

The new rules in California

California has introduced new emotional support animal (ESA) laws to address the misrepresentation of ESAs as service animals and regulate the sale of related items. ESAs hold a significant role in the lives of individuals with mental and emotional disabilities, and these regulations strive to protect both ESA owners and the community from fraudulent practices.

Understanding California’s ESA laws requires acknowledging that landlords must accommodate tenants with emotional support animals if they have a disability. However, ESAs do not have the same legal rights as service animals.

Governor Gavin Newsom signed California ESA law AB 468 on September 16, 2021, focusing on businesses selling special ESA certificates, ID cards, vests, and harnesses that might mislead others into thinking that an emotional support animal is a service animal. The law also addresses the increased selling and misrepresentation of emotional support animals as service animals.

The new law encompasses three significant changes: sales notice requirements, LMHP requirements, and impacts on psychiatric service dogs (PSDs). Businesses providing dogs as emotional support animals or selling special ESA items must now offer a written notice to buyers clarifying that the emotional support animal does not qualify as a service animal. LMHPs issuing ESA letters must adhere to additional stipulations, including holding a valid and active license and establishing a professional relationship with the client at least 30 days before providing the ESA letter. This law does not apply to PSDs, which already have access to most public places.

To qualify for a psychiatric service animal, you must have an animal specifically trained to complete tasks that help alleviate aspects of your mental or emotional disabilities. California ESA laws align with federal regulations, offering protection and rights for ESA owners, including housing, employment, and travel provisions for ESAs.

Make sure you tell your landlord

It is crucial to inform your landlord if you own an emotional support animal and your housing provider has a no-pet policy. A landlord cannot deny an emotional support animal in California if you have a valid ESA letter from a licensed mental health professional in your state. You can inform your landlord about your support animal before or after you sign your lease. Your landlord cannot charge a pet deposit, higher rent, additional security deposit, or liability insurance because you own an emotional support animal. Additionally, there is no limit to the number of emotional support animals you can have in California, provided each support animal assists you with your disability in a specific way, and each is covered by your ESA letter.

By comprehending and adhering to these new regulations, you can foster a harmonious relationship with your ESA and those around you. These laws protect the rights of ESA owners and the community, ensuring that ESAs are accurately represented and recognized for their vital role in the lives of individuals with mental and emotional disabilities.


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