While emotional support animals are not federally covered under the American Disability Act (ADA), that doesn’t mean that ESAs or their owners aren’t protected at all. Each state in the United States is allowed to have its own set of rules regarding emotional support animals. In this article, we will cover how to get an ESA letter in Virginia and which federal and local laws you and your emotional support animal are protected under.
What Is an ESA Letter?
An emotional support animal letter is an official document that proves a person’s need for an emotional support animal to treat any mental or emotional disability they may be struggling with. For an ESA letter to be valid, it must be written and signed by a licensed mental health professional in your state. With an official ESA letter, the owner can secure access to housing with their emotional support animals, regardless of the building’s pet fees or policies.
What Is an Emotional Support Animal?
Contrary to popular belief, emotional support animals are not service animals. An emotional support animal (ESA) is any animal that provides companionship and comfort to help alleviate one or more symptoms or effects of a person’s emotional or mental disability. Anyone can qualify for an emotional support animal, which can be of any species of animal, as long as it provides emotional support to its owner. Emotional support animals do not require training to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities. Instead, they serve as passionate companions that help their owners overcome difficult times or negative thoughts.
How to Get an Emotional Support Animal in Virginia
If you believe that you could greatly benefit from the ownership of an emotional support animal, you first need to find out if you qualify for obtaining an ESA based on your mental or emotional condition. Below are the steps you need to take to certify an animal as an ESA in Virginia.
Step 1: Schedule a Visit with Your Doctor
To discover whether or not you qualify for an emotional support animal, you first need to schedule an appointment with your doctor. During this initial consultation, it’s essential that you be open and honest with your provider about your mental health and what feelings you’ve been struggling with. From here, your doctor will refer you to a licensed mental health physician who will more effectively evaluate your condition and determine if an emotional support animal is best for you. If you don’t have a doctor to refer you to a mental health professional, you can use simple and accessible online services, such as Pettable, to locate and connect with a licensed mental health professional in your area. For an ESA letter in Virginia to be valid, it must be written and signed by a licensed mental health professional.
Step 2: Complete an Assessment with Your Physician
Before they can sign an ESA letter, Virginia state law requires that a licensed mental health professional complete a live consultation with the patient. This appointment can be conducted in person, via phone call, or video chat to best fit the client’s schedule, as long as it’s on record. The purpose of this evaluation is to discuss your situation and symptoms with your physician so they can diagnose your condition. If you feel it’s necessary for your well-being, you can bring up the possibility of obtaining an ESA and receive honest feedback from your licensed mental health professional on whether it would be best for you.
If you already see a therapist or other licensed physician about your mental health issues, you can talk to them about the possibility of getting an emotional support animal. Since this physician knows you best, they can offer the best advice for you and an ESA. However, not all licensed mental health professionals know about emotional support animals, so you should ask for recommendations for those who can help you if your physician cannot.
Step 3: Get Your ESA Letter
Once a mental health physician qualifies you for an emotional support animal, they will write and sign an official ESA letter. For this document to be viable, it must meet the following requirements:
- Your full name and a diagnosis of your disability must be included in the letter.
- The letter has to be written on your healthcare provider’s official letterhead.
- Your physician’s full name, license number, and specialty must be included.
- Your physician must sign and date the letter.
- Some states, including Virginia, require the letter to include details about the recommended ESA, such as species and breed.
Emotional support animal letters that fail to meet these conditions may not be eligible for housing or travel providers. Once you have your official ESA letter that meets all of the requirements and is signed by a licensed physician, congratulations; you are now the owner of a certified emotional support animal!
ESAs do not need to undergo specific training or registration. Therefore, if any organizations try to charge you money to register your ESA, be aware that it is most likely a scam.
Emotional support animals do not have to wear a vest or unique collar to show that they are an ESA. However, if you decide to dress your animal, ensure their clothing labels them as an ESA and not a service animal.
ESA Laws in Virginia
While local ESA laws vary in each state, Virginia does not provide legal protection for emotional support animals. Since ESAs are not federally protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, it’s essential to know where your emotional support animal is allowed and where they are prohibited. Below are specific descriptions of Virginia’s local laws regarding ESAs.
The federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) protects residents in any U.S. state, including Virginia, who have an emotional support animal. The act prevents landlords or housing providers from discriminating against anyone with a disability and ensures that individuals with an ESA have equal access to housing.
Transportation & Air Travel
Since emotional support animals are not protected under federal law like service animals, they can be refused entry on public transportation such as buses or trains. However, many transportation services allow small pets, so depending on your animal’s size and the service’s policies, you should be fine on most forms of public transport.
When it comes to air travel, ESAs are also not allowed. With the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), emotional support animals were once permitted to fly in the cabin of airplanes. However, as of 2021, the ACAA has been modified so that only service animals are offered protection when flying.
While employment is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, only service animals are protected under this law.
If you have an ESA letter and believe you need their presence in the workplace, you could still make a case with your employer in Virginia. While this decision is up to the discretion of your workplace, they may be accommodating to your requests. However, if your employer strictly decides against having an ESA in the workplace, there isn’t anything you can legally do to combat their choice.
In Virginia and most other states, emotional support animals are not allowed to accompany their owners in public areas that are otherwise off-limits to pets. Only service animals have complete access. Both federal law under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and state law specify that a person with a disability can use a service animal in establishments such as restaurants, retail stores, and other businesses. However, the laws do not protect using an emotional support animal in public places.
It’s also worth mentioning that it is a crime to identify your ESA as a service animal falsely. If caught doing so, you could receive a sizable fine starting at $500.
How You Qualify for an ESA in Virginia
To qualify for an emotional support animal in Virginia, a licensed mental health professional needs to diagnose you with a mental or emotional disability that is recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Additionally, this diagnosis needs to be within reasonable accommodation of an ESA. Below are a few disabilities that may qualify for an emotional support animal if a licensed mental health professional deems it necessary.
People with depression may feel lonely or tired, have bursts of irritability, and even struggle with insomnia. Those living with depression could greatly benefit from the company of an assistance animal as they can help a person overcome the negative feelings they face daily by offering companionship during times of hardship.
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) typically causes a person to suffer through flashbacks, severe anxiety, or uncontrollable thoughts and feelings. Symptoms of emotional disorders such as PTSD can have a negative toll on a person’s mental and emotional health. An emotional support assistance animal can offer a calming presence to bring a person with PTSD back to the present moment.
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can hinder a person’s ability to focus or sit still for long periods. Someone with ADHD may also exhibit struggles with self-control and may experience impulsiveness, trouble multitasking, disorganization, and stress-related effects. An assistance animal companion can help those with ADHD calm down, stay focused, and lower stress levels.
People with bipolar disorder can feel many things, including guilt, anxiety, general discontent, hopelessness, loss of interest, mood swings, apathy, or apprehension. These emotions can negatively affect a person’s life and those around them. An emotional assistance animal can provide feelings of ease to combat negative thoughts and emotions that stem from bipolar disorder.
Symptoms of schizophrenia can range from person to person, but occasionally, someone with schizophrenia can experience delusions, mood swings, hallucinations, or a lack of motivation. Psychiatric service animals are individually trained in helping people with schizophrenia, but some people may also benefit from owning a pet or ESA. Any animal can give structure and routine to a person’s schedule, helping those with schizophrenia stay focused and organized.
Panic disorder is a medical condition characterized by sudden and severe feelings of intense fear, often accompanied by physical symptoms such as dizziness, shortness of breath, a quickened pulse, and chest pains. An emotional support animal can help a person feel grounded and present during these episodes.
A person could develop chronic stress if they experience pressures in their home life or work life or if they experience a traumatic event. Because chronic stress is a mental health disability, sometimes people with chronic stress may experience headaches, fatigue, irritability, or even changes in appetite. Emotional support animals can help people relieve stress by lowering their blood pressure and heart rate. While they can’t alert others as service animals could, an emotional assistance animal can offer many therapeutic benefits to make a person feel safe.
People with social phobia feel intense judgment and anxiety in social situations. Everyday social interactions cause irrational fear, hopelessness, embarrassment, and self-consciousness. Social phobia can sometimes feel paralyzing, and an emotional support animal can help by offering feelings of love, care, and comfort.
If you’re struggling from a mental health condition that wasn’t mentioned in this list, that doesn’t mean you can’t qualify for an emotional support animal. Suppose you think an emotional support animal can help you feel better and live everyday life. In that case, you must reach out to a licensed mental health professional to get a proper diagnosis. These licensed physicians are available to create a treatment plan for you to provide relief for your symptoms, whether it involves an ESA or not. No matter what you’re dealing with, you never have to suffer alone.
Emotional Support Animal vs. Service Animal
One common misconception about emotional support animals is that they are the same as service dogs. However, the reality is that these two animals are vastly different from each other. Emotional support animals can be of any animal species, as long as they are proven to provide comfort and consolation to a person with a disability, generally through their presence and companionship. ESAs don’t need to go through any training or registration process. On the other hand, only dogs or horses can be certified service animals. Service animals require extensive training to perform specific tasks, such as retrieving items or opening doors, to assist a person with a physical or mental disability. Service animals are protected under the ADA and are federally allowed to travel anywhere with their owner.
Emotional Support Dog vs. Psychiatric Service Dog
Psychiatric service dogs are considered a type of service animal. Therefore, they are also federally protected under the ADA, while emotional support dogs are only covered under federal housing laws. Psychiatric service dogs provide assistance and perform tasks for people with psychiatric disabilities. Examples of functions typically performed by a psychiatric service dog include:
- Safety checks or room searches for individuals with PTSD.
- Blocking those in dissociative episodes from wandering into danger.
- Preventing impulsive or destructive behaviors, such as self-mutilation.
To obtain a psychiatric service dog, you need to contact a physician for a psychiatric service dog letter.
Frequently Asked Questions
If you are still curious about emotional support animal laws in Virginia, we provided a list of frequently asked questions regarding Virginia ESA laws.
Can a landlord deny an ESA in Virginia?
Under the Fair Housing Act, a landlord cannot deny an emotional support animal in Virginia, even if the building has a no-pet policy. However, if your animal shows aggression or causes a disturbance among residents, the landlord has the right to evict you. Although emotional support animals don’t require special training, it can be helpful to ensure they behave well in public spaces to avoid trouble.
Are ESAs allowed in Virginia?
Owning an emotional support animal is allowed in the state of Virginia. However, most public spaces such as schools, offices, and restaurants that do not allow pets, also prohibit ESAs from being on the property. Only housing units are legally obligated to allow emotional support animals on the premises.
How do I register my animal as an ESA in Virginia?
Emotional support animals do not need to undergo any registration process to be certified in Virginia. As long as you have a valid ESA letter that was recently written and signed by a licensed physician, then your animal is a certified ESA. If you can’t reach out to a mental health professional, you can search online for the best ESA letter services.
How do I know if my ESA letter is legit?
To find out if your ESA letter is legit, it’s important to look it over and conduct any necessary research. Your ESA should contain a licensed mental health professional’s official letterhead with their contact information, licensing, and signature. Additionally, you should check to ensure the physician’s license is in good standing and up to date by searching Virginia’s professional licensing database.
Who can write an ESA letter in Virginia?
A licensed healthcare professional can write and sign an ESA letter to prescribe you an emotional support animal in Virginia. This includes therapists, psychologists, certified nurse practitioners, and physicians.