If you’ve ever lived with a pet rabbit, I’m sure you understand how amazing these little fluffy friends can be for your mental health. As someone who grew up with generalized anxiety, I cannot even begin to explain how much my pet rabbits have helped me cope with life and improve my overall mental health. For those of you in a similar situation, it may be worth talking to a psychiatrist or therapist about Emotional Support Animals.
Pet rabbits can be Emotional Support Animals (ESA) for people who are struggling with a mental health condition. The ESA must be prescribed by a psychologist as a form of treatment, certifying that the pet helps to alleviate the conditions of the person’s illness and supports their mental health.
If you suffer from conditions such as anxiety, depression, or have another mental health condition and find that your pet improves your ability to function in daily life, then you can get your rabbit certified as an Emotional Support Animal. Getting this documentation will help you find housing and travel without the need to be separated from your pet. However, it’s important to understand the requirements and laws surrounding Emotional Support Animals. This way you’ll know your rights and be prepared for the situations that can arise.
What is an emotional support animal
An Emotional Support Animal (ESA) is simply a domestic animal that provides comfort and emotional stability to people experiencing the negative impacts of a mental health or developmental condition. The animal does not have to be specially trained for this role. It is the bond between animal and caretaker that is most important for supporting mental health.
Pet dogs are most commonly documented as ESAs. However, pretty much any breed and species of animal can be certified if their companionship helps to alleviate the negative symptoms of whatever mental health condition is being treated. This means that even a rabbit can become an Emotional Support Animal!
Emotional Support Animal vs. Therapy Animal vs. Service Animal
Many people confuse the term Emotional Support Animal with a Therapy Animal or a Service Animal, but these are actually three distinct classifications that also have different criteria and legal protections. These different types of animal services will provide your rabbit with different amounts of legal protection, but will also require different amounts of training.
Therapy animals are different from ESAs because they are used to provide emotional support for patients in therapy sessions (often in group settings) rather than as personal pets. They are trained to be a part of Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) and typically need to be registered with a national therapy animal organization in order to gain permission to enter a hospital or psychological facility.
Rabbits (and any species) can be trained to become therapy animals. There aren’t any federal regulations for therapy animals, other than to recognize AAT as a type of therapy, but rabbits will still have to meet some specific criteria from the organization they are certified with. This can vary based on the organization, but typically includes:
- Friendly around people.
- Healthy and well cared for.
- Trimmed nails and groomed fur.
- Comfortable in unfamiliar places and around loud sounds.
- Able to wear a harness and leash.
- Completely litter trained with no accidents.
While an ESA provides emotional comfort for their caretaker, they don’t have to go through any rigorous training to meet the criteria to be certified. A Service Animal, on the other hand, is trained to perform specific functions that support a person with a disability. For example, seeing-eye dogs fall into this category, as well as dogs trained to push a wheelchair or notify when a smoke alarm is going off.
Service Animals have a lot more protection under the law because of the vital services they perform. At the moment, ONLY DOGS can be certified as Service Animals. Your rabbit cannot become a certified service animals and therefore cannot gain the legal protections that service animals have.
The criteria for an emotional support rabbit
The criteria for ESA pets is actually pretty open. There is no specialized training that your rabbit needs to go through or a certification test they need to pass. An ESA just needs to be non-aggressive in public and avoid being a nuisance within the home.
For rabbits, this means they will not lash out at someone if they are taken into a public setting. Most rabbits will not have a problem with this since aggression is uncommon. Being a non-nuisance at home, simply means that they don’t end up causing more distress instead of providing emotional support.
For example, if you find that your rabbit is constantly getting into so much trouble that you find yourself constantly getting upset by their actions. In this scenario, they are not doing their job to provide comfort and emotional support, so would not be a good option for an Emotional Support Animal.
Other than that, the only item you need to certify your ESA rabbit is a letter from a licensed psychologist or therapist. This letter should include a verification that you have a disability or mental health condition and the rabbit has been prescribed as treatment. Conditions that an ESA can be prescribed as treatment for include:
- Bipolar Disorder
- Other related mental health conditions
The laws surrounding emotional support rabbits
A common misconception about ESAs is that they have protection under the law to accompany their caretakers wherever they go. This is not the case. In fact, ESA rabbits have a very limited amount of legal protection.
They are not officially recognized as Service Animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) so they are not given the same legal rights. The only two areas where Emotional Service Animals are given any kind of legal protection to accompany their owners are during air travel and in permanent housing.
Air Travel for ESAs
Update: As of December 2020, airlines are no longer required to allow emotional support animals onto flights. The only animals covered by the revised Department of Transportation rules are trained Service Dogs.
Since many people with chronic anxiety or other mental health conditions become extremely stressed when flying, there are special considerations for ESAs when traveling by airplane.
Under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), Emotional Support Animals must be allowed to accompany their caretakers in the cabin of the plane without any additional pet fee. However, the airline companies can require proof from a licensed professional that the pet’s presence in the cabin is required as treatment for a disability or mental health condition.
You will need a letter from a certified psychologist or therapist written within the past year, explaining that you have a disability or qualified mental health condition and the rabbit must accompany you on the plane to treat that condition.
You’ll also want to contact the airline ahead of time so that they can let you know exactly what kinds of documentation they want from you to prove your need and to know how they require you to transport the rabbit. Many airlines will require the rabbit to stay in a carrier at all times, while others will allow them to travel on a leash.
Housing rights for ESA
The only other way that your emotional support rabbit will receive protection under the law is in permanent housing. The Fair Housing Act stipulates that an ESA can be considered a reasonable accommodation for a person with a disability. This means that you would not be required to pay any extra pet fee to obtain housing with your rabbit, and the rental association is required to let your rabbit stay with you even if they do not normally allow pets.
Just like with airlines, housing and rental associations will require documentation that your rabbit is an emotional support animal that is treating a specific mental health need. You’ll need to provide a letter from a licensed professional that clearly states that your rabbit has been prescribed as an ESA to support your mental health.
Legally a landlord only has the right to reject an Emotional Service Animal if the pet poses a health or safety risk or if the accommodation would cause an undue financial burden on them. The landlord is not allowed to raise the rent or evict a tenant solely because they need an ESA.
What is NOT the legal right of an ESA
Other than airlines and housing accommodations, there are no federal protections for your emotional support rabbit. Other establishments and types of transportation are NOT required to allow your pet to accompany you. If pets are not normally allowed in a building or area then that applies to your rabbit as well. If pets normally have an extra fee associated with them, then that will apply to your rabbit too.
Your rabbit does not get any special treatment for being an Emotional Support Animal in any of these facilities:
- Taxis (including Uber, Lyft, etc.)
- Shops and malls
- Anyplace that is not an airplane or your own permanent housing
This doesn’t mean the establishments can’t allow your pet to accompany you when you let them know your need, but it does mean they are not required to and can legally add an additional pet fee to the price.
The only possible exceptions are with some state laws. You can look up the specific laws of your state and local municipalities to see if they expand the protections for emotional support animals.
How to certify your pet rabbit as an Emotional Support Animal
You’ll see many sites about Emotional Support Animals telling you to register your pet with their online site to receive a certification. They’ll send you a certificate, a cute ESA vest, and even an ID for your pet to make everything seem more official. Signing your rabbit up with one of these online registries does absolutely nothing to make them an official ESA.
The only way you can ‘certify’ that your rabbit is an Emotional Support Animal is by getting a letter written and signed by a licensed psychologist or therapist. It doesn’t have to be your regular therapist, since many people cannot afford weekly therapy visits. However you do need to meet with someone who can diagnose your condition and prescribe your as an ESA for treatment of that mental health condition.
Keep in mind that if you travel or move often you may need to get another document written and signed every year. Most airlines and housing establishments will require that the letter be signed and dated within the past year when you submit the document for approval.
The requirements of your letter include:
- Written by a licensed professional on their own letterhead.
- Explain that you have a disability. It does not have to say what the disability is, only that you have been diagnosed with a recognized mental health condition.
- Include a recommendation or prescription of your rabbit as an Emotional Support Animal to help in alleviating the negative symptoms of your condition. For air travel it should also clearly state that the rabbit should accompany you in the cabin of the aircraft.
- Include the license number, signature, and date of the mental health professional.
How rabbits provide emotional support
While the most common species of Emotional Support Animal is dogs by far, rabbits are not completely uncommon. As a species, they have many traits and characteristics that can actually make them ideal pets for providing mental and emotional support to their caretakers.
If you are considering getting a pet to support your mental health needs, here are some reasons to consider getting a rabbit instead of a more traditional pet:
- Rabbits are quiet. Loud dog barks or persistent cat meows can be overwhelming and stressful, so a quiet pet is often a better choice for those of us who are prone to sensory overload.
- Rabbits can use a litter box. You don’t have to worry about taking a rabbit out for a walk everyday because they can easily be litter box trained.
- Rabbits are clean. Rabbits don’t need to be given baths because they are able to keep themselves clean. As long as your rabbit is litter box trained, there is no need to worry about a dirty and smelly house.
- Rabbits are very social. When treated as companion pets, rabbits are quick to bond with their caretakers. Most rabbits will love to sit next to you and be pet for many hours at a time.
- Rabbits can be trained. Rabbits are intelligent and can be trained to do a number of tricks that make life a little easier, including coming to you when you call.
- Rabbits have a long lifespan. Domestic rabbits that are well cared for can be expected to live about 10 years, sometimes longer.
- Brannan, Jacquie “Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals.” National Network. https://adata.org/guide/service-animals-and-emotional-support-animals.
- “Service, emotional support and therapy animals.” American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/animal-health-welfare/service-emotional-support-and-therapy-animals.
- “ADA Requirements: Service Animals.” U.S. Department of Justice. February 24, 2020. https://www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm.
- Schaper, David. “Federal Government Cracks Down On Emotional Support Animals On Planes.” NPR. December 8, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/12/08/944128779/federal-government-cracks-down-on-emotional-support-animals-on-planes.