dogs self-care Wellness

What Is An Emotional Support Animal? + Why We Got Bodhi Certified

November 6, 2017

Disclaimer: This post is sponsored by Stella & Chewy’s as part of my year long partnership with them. Thank you for supporting the brands that help make THM possible.

I think it’s safe to say that you all know I’m obsessed with our dog Bodhi. From a distance you might think that that I’m just your average dog lover, or a tad bit crazy with my attachment to him, but there’s so much more to the story.

Bodhi isn’t just our dog, or even my best friend (though C and I will forever fight for his love), he’s actually my Certified Emotional Support Animal, or ESA dog for short.

What is an Emotional Support Animal (ESA)? How do you get your dog certification? This post answers both of these questions as well as how to care for your ESA.

Anytime I mention this to someone I always get questions as to why and how Bodhi got his dog certification, so I thought I would tackle them in this post. A lot of other people don’t know the difference between an Emotional Support Animal and a Service Animal, so I wanted to jump into that too. Years ago when I was researching this, I wish I had a full break down of how to get your dog ESA certified. So let’s jump in…

Why We Got Bodhi Certified

There is no doubt in my mind that Bodhi is my ESA. He is my confidante, best friend and the ultimate listener. When I’m feeling sad/depressed/lonely/anxious he provides immediate perspective. Watching him find joy in everything from a peanut butter kong to a stick reminds me to search for that same kind of joy in my life. He also helps me get out of bed on those days when I don’t want to (and trust me, I have those days) and get outside when I’d rather crawl into my anxious shell. Besides my medication I take for anxiety, Bodhi is 100% necessary for my mental health.

Bodhi goes above and beyond for me in ways I could have never imagined. I grew up with a dog, but it’s not until I got one of my own that I realized how in tune they are with your energy. Those days when I just need a little extra support, he totally knows it and will literally sleep at my feet all day or nuzzle his cold, wet nose into my hands to remind me he’s there. Because of this I definitely go above and beyond for him. Feeding him kibble that is full of nutritious ingredients is just one of the many ways I return my love for him. That and sneaking him bites of my banana…his favorite treat!

What is an Emotional Support Animal (ESA)? How do you get your dog certification? This post answers both of these questions as well as how to care for your ESA.

How To Register For An Emotional Support Animal

You need a licensed mental health professional to write you a letter in order to qualify for an emotional support animal. This letter outlines that your pet is necessary for your mental health and wellbeing. This can be a doctor (including a psychiatrist), psychologist or social worker. So long as the person is licensed to care for your mental health they may write the letter.

I have been in therapy for over 10 years. My psychiatrist would tell you that Bodhi is my emotional support animal, however when we moved to the US, we were still sorting out our health insurance so I didn’t have a mental health professional in place yet.

Luckily, there are online services that can connect you to a licensed mental health professional to provide a letter for you if you are in this situation. I used CertaPet and while it wasn’t cheap, it did allow for me to get a new letter written in the US while we were transitioning. They require you to fill out a questionnaire that asks you about your mental health and speak with a mental health professional. Do I think that some people abuse this service? Yes. But if you’re in a pinch, like I was then it’s a great option.

*editors note – A LOT of people have commented on this and I want to add that while I wish I didn’t have to use an online service, I’m grateful that they exist. There are many sites like this that are scams but the ones that require you to speak with a mental health professional are not and for anyone who does not have access to a mental health professional or cannot afford other means to support their mental illness, this is certainly an option. I am in no way affiliated with them, I’m just simply providing my experience and having been in a situation that did not give me access to a mental health professional for 3 months while trying to search for a new home I wouldn’t be here without them.

Do you need the dog vest? CertaPet and the likes (there are others out there), will try to sell you the vest and the card. You do not need either of these to have your dog certified. All you need is the letter from your mental health professional to be eligible for ESA benefits.

Emotional Support Animal vs. Service Animal – What’s the Difference?

This is where things get confusing. People think that because Bodhi is my ESA that I can take him everywhere. Do I wish I could? Yes, but unfortunately that’s not the case.

Emotional Support Animal – gives you certain privileges in cases where dogs may not typically be permitted. The two main ones are for landlords who disqualify pet owners and for people with a fear of flying. Getting your dog certified means that landlords must accept you and your dog even if they’re a dog-free building. If your dog is qualified to fly with you, that means they can come on the plane with you and sit at your feet, even if they are above the weight-limit. Having an ESA means you have an emotional disability and your dog is necessary for your mental health.

Service Animal – these are highly-trained dogs that help individuals with physical disabilities. Whether it be seeing-eye dogs, hard of hearing dogs or provide another physical service, these dogs have gone through rigorous training and are working 24 hours a day with their owners. They are permitted everywhere. They get all the same benefits of an ESA but it also goes beyond by allowing you to take your dog with you wherever you go.

What is an Emotional Support Animal (ESA)? How do you get your dog certification? This post answers both of these questions as well as how to care for your ESA.

How To Care For Your Emotional Support Animal

I think it’s pretty inherent that if your dog (or other pet) is expected to provide a service for you, you would ensure the best care for them. We certainly don’t mess around when it comes to Bodhi’s health. He’s an active dog that requires the right kind of fuel to support his level of energy. That’s why it was important to us that we be feeding the best possible food for his breed.

Mealtime is 100% the highlight of Bodhi’s day. Not only does he get his morning and evening affirmations (see here), but he also INHALES his food. We feed him Stella and Chewy’s Raw Blend Kibble and there is no question that he loves it. More importantly, it is made from organic fruits and vegetables, grass-fed or cage-free meat, and has a combination of freeze dried raw meat and gently-baked kibble, so it is easy on his stomach and convenient for us. It’s also 100% grain-free.

To learn more about what you should be feeding your dog check out this post, but having now recommended Stella and Chewy’s to three different dog parents, all of whom LOVE the food I can safely say that you will love it too. And no, this isn’t just my sponsored voice talking – I genuinely think it is a fantastic choice for your pet.

Some Final Thoughts

I was having a chat with a friend who also has an ESA and she was telling me about an experience she had while flying with her dog. She has a fear of flying and her dog has allowed her to get on planes to go visit her family. While most people were respectful, she did encounter some people who required her to explain why she had her dog with her. I understand people’s curiosities, but not everyone wants to explain why they have an ESA. In the same way you wouldn’t ask someone with a Service Animal to explain why they have one. I’d rather not have to describe my anxiety to random strangers and likewise, she should not have to explain her fear of flying. This is just my short PSA to be respectful of everyone’s situations and not assume that every person got their pet certified simply because they love them – which most pet parents still do.

This last point is for anyone who already has an ESA. If you are flying with them, try to be as respectful as possible with your neighbors. Though we haven’t flown with Bodhi yet, when we do, we will reserve the front bulkhead seats as he is a big dog and requires more space. If your dog is small, that’s much easier, but for bigger dogs try to reserve a seat with more leg room (besides the emergency row which cannot be blocked) so that your pet isn’t taking up your neighbors space.

What is an Emotional Support Animal (ESA)? How do you get your dog certification? This post answers both of these questions as well as how to care for your ESA.

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  • Reply
    Sabrina
    November 7, 2017 at 2:46 pm

    I am so glad to see you highlighting the immense impact that a pet can have on one’s mental health. This is a really personal topic to me, not just as an ESA dog owner but also as a healthcare professional who is no stranger to the struggles of mental health. About 6 years ago, my mother was diagnosed with stage IV cancer and one of the first decisions she made that brought her joy in the face of this extremely challenging and mentally-trying diagnosis was getting a puppy. Rhett (my mom’s dog and now my dog) was so important to my mother’s mental wellbeing throughout her fight with cancer. He provided her with an outlet to get outside and be active and social, to make her laugh and smile, and to enjoy lighthearted moments in which to momentarily forget about her illness. She had Rhett certified as an ESA through the same channels that you had Bodhi certified. (NOTE: despite being extremely ill, unable to work (*my mom was a surgeon and ran a very busy and successful practice prior to her diagnosis*), and having a very poor prognosis in terms of her life expectancy, my mother did NOT qualify for a service animal as she was not technically suffer from a ‘physical disability’). Yet, by having Rhett certified as an ESA, she could bring him with her almost anywhere and was thus able to benefit from the hugely uplifting emotional effects that he brought to her daily life. There is a lot of evidence that demonstrates that a person’s emotional support network and mental wellbeing have a significant effect on their survival outcomes and quality of life in face of significant morbidity, particularly in cancer patients. I can without a doubt say that Rhett made my mother’s life fuller, happier, and more rewarding during her nearly 3 and a half year battle with cancer. If it weren’t for the channels available to certify Rhett as an ESA, he would not have been able to provide her with the kind of companionship that truly made a difference during the final years of her life. Similarly, after my mother’s premature passing and inheriting Rhett, I have experienced my own mental health challenges in the face of immense grief and other life stresses. The emotional support I receive on a daily basis from my dog is unrivalled by any other form of therapy. I could not imagine being unable to bring Rhett with me on a plane or to find an apartment that allowed pets, just because my mental and emotional ‘handicaps’ don’t qualify me for a service animal. The Healthy Maven, thank you very much for this touching and personal post and for shedding light on mental health and the benefits of ESA certification ! <3

  • Reply
    Ashley | Fit Mitten Kitchen
    November 7, 2017 at 2:18 pm

    I thought this post was super interesting. I am not sure I knew there was a difference between an ESA an a service animal but it makes sense! And thank you for being so open and honest about your mental health! It helps so many people, including myself <3

  • Reply
    Zoe
    November 7, 2017 at 2:01 pm

    Thanks so much for talking about mental health and bringing this discussion into the wellness sphere. And even more importantly, for making yourself vulnerable and using your own mental health as an example!!! I’m so glad you found something that works for you, and that you could find a way to support your needs within the US healthcare system. As we know with mental health, there is no one size fits all solution, and if you find something that works – grab on and never let it go!!!!Thanks again for sharing your story!!!

  • Reply
    Kelly M
    November 7, 2017 at 12:05 pm

    Companies like CertaPet are scams. To fly with an ESA or to live in no pets housing with one, airlines and landlords are legally permitted to require letters from a licensed mental health care professional that is treating you for your psychiatric disability. CertaPet is not treating you for your disability, so landlords and airlines are not required to accept any kind of documentation from them. What you need is a letter from someone that is actually treating you.

    I am not questioning your disability or your need for an ESA. I have a service dog and I also have a cat that functions as an ESA. I have letters from my psychiatrist verifying that I am disabled and need a SD and an ESA. I understand how much an ESA helps. Before I had my service dog, my cat seriously saved my life.

    I just want to make sure people realize that companies that certify ESAs are scams.

    • Reply
      Davida @ The Healthy Maven
      November 7, 2017 at 1:29 pm

      I had moved from Canada to to the US with a letter written by my psychiatrist who I had for 10 years and encouraged me to get my dog to cope with my generalized anxiety and depression. Unfortunately this letter did not count as it was written on letterhead from another country. I had no health insurance or access to a mental health professional in the month after we moved and were looking for a home so I did what I had to do. I spoke to a very professional and understanding psychologist who listened to my situation and clearly understood the gravity of the situation. My now-psychologist that I have established here will be writing my 2018 letter. I both acknowledged the abuse of these types of services AND explained that the only certification you need is a letter from your mental health professional. I’m simply offering a solution for people who might not have access to a mental health professional for a variety of reasons. And as I can only speak to my experience which was very legitimate (we had two phone conversations AND she spoke with my Canadian psychiatrist) I did not feel it was a scam or needed to be listed as such. Are there others that are scams? Yes. Do people abuse these systems? Yes. Both of which I mentioned. I appreciate you sharing your experience, but ask that you try to not jump to conclusions or make grand claims about services you don’t have experience with.

  • Reply
    Chelsea
    November 7, 2017 at 4:14 am

    Thank you so much for scamming the system and making it that much harder for people who truly need ESAs! There is NO, I repeat, NO CERTIFICATION. What you purchased is nothing more than a scam. You have to be disabled by a mental health condition to even qualify for an ESA and a diagnosis is NOT necessatily a disability. You promoting a fake certification makes it so much harder for those who truly need ESAs, let alone service animals. If you were to be taken to court with your fake documents, you wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. You weren’t in a pinch, you were too impatient to actually follow the law because it wasn’t instant gratification. What an absolute joke

    • Reply
      Davida @ The Healthy Maven
      November 7, 2017 at 10:21 am

      Thank you for completely diminishing my mental health diagnosis. I had moved from Canada to to the US with a letter written by my psychiatrist who I had for 10 years and encouraged me to get my dog to cope with my generalized anxiety and depression. Unfortunately this letter did not count as it was written on letterhead from another country. I had no health insurance or access to a mental health professional in the month after we moved and were looking for a home so I did what I had to do. I spoke to a very professional and understanding psychologist who listened to my situation and clearly understood the gravity of the situation. My now-psychologist that I have established here will be writing my 2018 letter. I both acknowledged the abuse of these types of services AND explained that the only certification you need is a letter from your mental health professional. Your lack of empathy or understanding for someone who has struggled with her mental health her whole life and has finally found a form of support is an absolute joke. Thank you for perpetuating stigma in this country. Good on you.

    • Reply
      Vickie
      April 12, 2018 at 11:07 am

      Chelsea, can you clarify… is the only documentation needed for my dog to be recognized as an ESA a letter from my mental health doctor? If not, what are the steps?

  • Reply
    Carmy @ carmyy.com
    November 6, 2017 at 9:40 pm

    I’m glad you made the distinction between ESA and service animals, there seems to be a lot of miscommunication and information over the two. I had considered getting my dog registered as an ESA dog for a while now but never took the plunge. He’s such the sweetheart and always seems to know what to do when he feels the tension in the room rising.

  • Reply
    Kaitlyn @ Powered by Sass
    November 6, 2017 at 6:04 pm

    A pet’s intuition is a beautiful thing, and as I sit here and type this, our pup Tuki is to my right and cat Joey to my left nestled beside me. It’s like they know. Thank you for clarifying, Davida!

  • Reply
    Janice - Salads 4 Lunch
    November 6, 2017 at 3:48 pm

    Oh my goodness, Bodhi is adorable! We rescued a cat this summer and I have felt much happier since. I didn’t realize until now that there was a difference between a service dog and an ESA dog, thanks for sharing!

  • Reply
    Nicole @ bento momentos
    November 6, 2017 at 2:06 pm

    This post gives a great explanation of the difference between a service animal and an ESA. I’ve never heard of an ESA until this. Thank you for sharing!

  • Reply
    dixya @food, pleasure, and health
    November 6, 2017 at 1:47 pm

    i had no idea about ESA vs. service dog! they definitely feel your energy and really are the best. I have been feeding Bailey mix of homecooked food and her kibbles but will be checking this brand as she is one picky eater.

    • Reply
      Davida @ The Healthy Maven
      November 6, 2017 at 2:30 pm

      Bailey will LOVE S&C! Bodhi adores it and I love knowing that he’s getting top-quality food!

  • Reply
    Liz
    November 6, 2017 at 11:26 am

    Thank you so much for sharing all of this information in one place! I’ve always been curious about how to designate a dog as an ESA.

    I totally hear you and your friend on nosy people – ugh! I’ve met and been involved with training of a lot of service dogs through the years and know better than to ask their people just why they’re there. If I end up in conversation with someone, I may inquire the dog’s name/age or other fun facts about their time spent together, but nothing more. Almost everyone loves to share stories about their animals, service or pet, and I love hearing them!

  • Reply
    Erin @ Erin's Inside Job
    November 6, 2017 at 9:12 am

    Donut is an ESA and I wrote a whole post about when this woman verbally attacked me in the elevator for not “looking like I need her.” I totally get it and just don’t get people who are so mean!

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