When the term emotional support animal appears in the news, it's usually attached to stories of travelers trying (and often failing) to bring their exotic pets onto airplanes. But an animal doesn't need to be a pig, a peacock, or something just as unconventional to qualify. What constitutes an emotional support animal has little to do with the pet itself and more to do with its owner.

Emotional support animals are pets that improve the quality of life for people living with disabilities. Typically they help people with mental health disorders, such as depression, generalized anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or some other condition that affects their emotional state.

Emotional support animals shouldn't be confused with service animals, though they both play important roles. Service animals are trained to do a specific job that directly relates to their owner's health issue, whether it's sensing blood sugar levels, responding to seizures, or acting as their ears or eyes. Emotional support animals, on the other hand, don't need any training to qualify for their title; a person diagnosed with a mental or emotional illness gets to decide if their pet's presence is essential to their wellbeing.

People with emotional support animals aren't protected by the Americans With Disabilities Act, but there are federal laws that recognize them. One is the Fair Housing Act; under this law, landlords are required to make reasonable accommodations for tenants with impairments who say the emotional support they receive from their pets alleviates some of their symptoms. This applies to almost all types of living situations, including buildings where pets are normally prohibited.

Another law that mentions emotional support animals is the Air Carrier Access Act. This says that airlines should let passengers take their emotional support animals into the cabin with them rather than checking them as cargo. Of course there are exceptions to both of these rules: A landlord and an airline may reject an animal if they think it will be especially disruptive or pose a threat to the safety of others. So even if your emotional support alligator provides you genuine comfort, you likely don't have the right to bring it into business class with you.

Emotional support animals don't need to be registered, but you'll probably need to show some paperwork if you're looking for special accommodations when flying or signing a lease. If you want to make your pet an emotional support animal, make sure you're prepared with a written diagnosis and a pet "prescription" from your mental healthcare provider.

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