Jan 12, 2021

Emotional support animals are a common request in doctor's offices lately. What are emotional support animals really? And what should you know before you request paperwork?

At least a few times a month we're getting asked to write letters for patients for their animal to be allowed in the home as an emotional support animal. While a pediatrician or a family doctor can legally write these letters, we can only do so if there is a clear mental health diagnosis that we are actively managing. Sometimes your pediatrician may refer you to a licensed mental health provider to get an accurate diagnosis and write your letter.

Not all primary care providers are comfortable writing emotional support letters, especially if we are not involved in managing the diagnosis. Please don't ask a doctor who has never met your child to write the letter for you. We can't. There are certain specific criteria for what constitutes a diagnosis that qualifies your child for an emotional support animal.

One thing parents need to understand when they are asking for a letter, they are now claiming that the animal is not a pet. The letter will have to be written to show that the purpose of owning the animal is that the animal will help with symptoms of mental illness that their child has. An emotional support animal is not covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. That requires additional training and certification, and they would need to be qualified as a service animal in order to be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

A letter from your doctor will not guarantee that your request will be accommodated as it will only state that your child has an emotional disability and that the pet helps calm their symptoms. An emotional support animal is not a service animal. You can't just take it wherever you want. Often parents are wanting the letter so the child can have their animal with them if they move, but they may also want a waiver of the pet fees in their new housing location.

While a landlord needs to allow the animal in the home with that letter, the landlord may or may not grant a waiver of the pet fees. Also, please don't ask a doctor to write a letter for you when you do not yet own the animal. Remember owning an animal is a huge responsibility. There's training, feeding, cleaning up poop, and vet bills for routine care, sick visits and all those vaccines that are required. You need to be able to properly care for an animal.

If you cannot give that animal the best care and love it deserves, then it would be best to find other ways to help your child treat their mental illness. I get it, I'm a hound mom myself, and I know how much snuggling a puppy can help after a stressful day. I know how much comfort my boys get from our dog when they are having a hard time.

However, it is very important to understand that emotional support animals are technically a form of therapy. The letters need to come from the provider who is addressing the child's mental health needs, usually a therapist or psychiatrist. If you have questions about emotional support animals, you can ask your child's pediatrician, but please understand if we think it best if your child's mental health provider write the letter.

For Patients