Take Your Emotional Support Animal with you ANYWHERE!


Q. Since my wife, Linda, and I retired, we travel a lot. A few weeks ago, when we flew to San Diego, we saw someone with a dog in the cabin of the plane, sitting on the owner’s lap, and the flight attendant didn’t say anything about it. The dog was small enough to fit under the owner’s seat in a pet travel bag, so we figured she must have just taken it out temporarily and maybe the flight attendant didn’t even notice.  However, on the way home, there was a woman with a large well-behaved German Shepherd that just laid in the aisle next to its owner.  The lady did not appear to be blind or disabled, nor was the dog wearing any special vest indicating it was a Service Animal.  Our Golden Retriever, Goldie, makes us happy whenever she’s around. I have PTSD from my time in Vietnam, and just petting her brings me comfort in immeasurable ways. My wife has suffered from depression throughout her life, and she sees Goldie as our third child (the other two got married and moved out a while ago). My children even accuse us of favoring Goldie over them, and replacing pics of the grandchildren with pictures of Goldie. And, I have to say, they may be right. What makes us really sad is that we have to leave her with a sitter when we travel (or even when we go out locally). We never thought we could bring her in the cabin of a plane because we had always thought that only small pets that fit under your seat are allowed in the cabin, and we don’t want Goldie locked up in a crate in the cargo hold.  We are planning on flying to visit the Grand Canyon soon, and it would be amazing if Goldie could come with us. Do you know what we can do to be able to bring Goldie on the plane, like the woman with the German Shepherd?

A. Most likely, both dogs you saw on the plane were Emotional Support Animals. The National Institute of Mental Health shows that more than 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. have some form of mental disorder. For some people suffering from an emotional or psychological condition, there is nothing more calming than an Emotional Support Animal.

Animals provide seniors with more than companionship. Emotional Support Animals are animals that provide comfort, support, affection, and companionship for people suffering from various mental and emotional conditions. They are meant solely for emotional stability and unconditional love and can assist with conditions such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder/mood disorder, panic attacks, fear/phobias (including fear of flying), and other psychological and emotional conditions, including PTSD.

Studies Show Emotional Support Animals Help Combat Senior Isolation and Help PTSD

A new Harvard study shows that Emotional Support Animals can help create human-to-human friendships and social support, both of which are good for long-term health and as a way to eliminate social isolation.

When paired with the right animal, veterans with PTSD are less likely to require drugs for their condition, or at least as many drugs or lower dosages (limiting side effects), and even less likely to commit suicide (a growing issue among veterans). In addition, researchers are accumulating evidence that bonding with animals has biological effects, such as elevated levels of the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin improves trust, the ability to interpret facial expressions, the overcoming of paranoia and other pro-social effects — the opposite of PTSD symptoms. For more about PTSD Animals, please read our blog post, “Lending a Paw for Veterans.”

Emotional Support Animals Are Protected Under Federal Law

Under the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA) and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), an individual who meets the proper criteria is entitled to an Emotional Support Animal to assist them. The FHAA protects individuals by allowing their Emotional Support Animal to live with them (even when there are no pet policies in place), while the ACAA allows Emotional Support animals to fly with their owners in the cabin of an airplane (and without having to pay any additional fees).

When it comes to Emotional Support Animals or Service Animals, federal law prohibits discrimination of breed, size, and training level.  Unlike Service Animals that are specially trained for a specific task, such as helping the blind or detecting seizures, Emotional Support Animals do not have to be trained to perform any specific task. In other words, any animal can be an Emotional Support Animal, and Emotional Support Animals do not have to be professionally-trained or registered.
In addition, people with Emotional Support Animals must also be allowed access to all public accommodations. This right takes precedence over all state and local laws which might otherwise prohibit animals in those places such as stores, malls, restaurants, hotels/resorts, airlines, cruises, taxi cabs, and buses, just to name a few.

Identifying Emotional Support Animals for the Public

Emotional Support Animals are often identified by wearing an Emotional Support Animal vest or tag that lets the public know that it is an Emotional Support Animal. Some businesses, such as airlines, prefer to see an identification card or vest that indicates that the Animal is an Emotional Support Animal.  But these types of identification are not required.  All you need is a letter from a qualified medical or mental health professional stating that your animal is an Emotional Support Animal, and stating the reasons.

Getting Your Animal Qualified

In order to qualify your pet as an Emotional Support Animal, just Google the term “emotional support animal” and you will be presented with many options.  Do not be fooled by places touting themselves as “official” or “registries,” as there are no such things. As stated before, all you need is a letter from a qualified medical / mental health professional, and there are many legitimate services online that will connect you with such a qualified professional for as little as $125.  The letter that you get is only good for one year, so you will need to get a new letter each year, and some services charge less for a “recertification” letter.  Also, when flying, check airline policy because most airlines want at least 48 hours’ notice that you will be flying with an Emotional Support Animal. Although the law does not seem to allow airlines to require this kind of notice, it is a good idea to try to follow the airline’s policy.

Protecting Your Emotional Support Animal with a Pet Trust

When your Emotional Support Animal is “working” (such as accompanying you on a flight to help keep you calm), it is technically not a pet. However, at other times, your beloved Emotional Support Animal is a pet.  A Pet Trust is legal instrument that you can create to insure your pet receives proper care after you die or in the event of your disability.  Pet owners can have peace of mind knowing their pets will be cared for according to their instructions, since pet trusts are enforceable by law. The directions left in a pet trust can be very specific, and can even include your pet’s favorite brand of food, how many times you visit the veterinarian, and your pet’s walk/exercise schedule. A trust that goes into effect while the pet owner is still alive can provide instructions for the care of the animals in the event that the pet owner becomes gravely sick or injured. Since pet owners know the particular habits of their animals better than anyone else, they can describe the kind of care their pets should have and provide a list of the person(s) who would be willing to provide that care.

Unlike a Will, which has to wind through the nightmare of probate, a Pet Trust should be created along with your living trust and should be designed to take effect immediately upon your incapacity or death so that your beloved companion does not have to linger in a shelter while the courts cut through paperwork. Most pet owners opt to leave pets to family or a close friend. The main value of the pet trust is the fact it’s legally enforceable. If your designated caretaker does not live up to obligations, the courts can step in.

Since there are several states in which a pet trust is not valid, and other states where enforcement is discretionary, it is advisable to set up a trust with the help of a Certified Elder Law Attorney, such as myself, who specializes in estate planning. If you live in Virginia, the law (Virginia Va. Code Ann. § 55-544.08) states that “A trust may be created for the care of an animal or animals alive during the settlor’s lifetime.  The trust terminates upon the death of the animal, or upon the death of the last surviving animal covered by the trust.”

You can find out more at your no-cost initial consultation at The Farr Law Firm. You can then decide if the trust makes financial sense for you and your family. If so, we can work with you to include all of your pet’s needs and your wishes for your pet, and name a caretaker and a trust administrator for when the inevitable happens.

While you are in the office, be sure to visit with all of the animals who live here, including Angel (our adorable cat), Commander Bun Bun (our lop-eared love bunny), and Baxter (Justin’s dog who comes to the office from time-to-time). Also be sure to read our “Critter Corner” column in our Friday “Ask the Expert” newsletter each week. To make an appointment, please call us at:

Fairfax Estate Planning Attorney: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Estate Planning Attorney: 540-479-1435
Rockville Estate Planning Attorney: 301-519-8041
DC Estate Planning Attorney: 202-587-2797

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