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Can Cats Be Emotional Support Animals?

Susana Bradford
Susana Bradford
Lead Editor

An emotional support animal (ESA) can help mitigate the symptoms of mental illness. Dogs are perhaps the most well-known ESAs, but cats are also popular. Read on to learn more about the benefits of an emotional support cat and find out how to get legal protection for your feline ESA.

What is an emotional support animal?

An emotional support animal can help individuals cope with symptoms of emotional or mental disabilities. Dogs, cats, birds, and other support pets can provide comfort to their owners through their mere presence. Many people feel calmer with their ESA and are able to cope with their mental illness more easily.

ESAs help people throughout their daily lives. They can calm people down during anxiety or panic attacks and comfort individuals who experience traumatic flashbacks or symptoms of depression. Support from an ESA helps countless people deal with the effects of mental illness in a healthy way.

Can cats be emotional support animals?

ESA cat

While many people immediately think of dogs as helpful and comforting, cats can be ESAs too. There are no legal restrictions on what kind of animals can be ESAs. For many individuals, cats provide a sense of calm and peace that can help mitigate some of the symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses.

Dogs can certainly have positive effects on a person’s life, but sometimes dogs can add stress to a person’s life as well. Dogs can be very high-energy at times, and sometimes training dogs to obey commands or use the bathroom in the appropriate place can be quite stressful. These are all obstacles that a cat owner doesn’t usually have to overcome with their pet. While a cat’s love for their family and a dog’s love for their family are the same love, these animals both have different things to offer to their families.

Cat people may find they’re comforted by a cat’s calm demeanor. Cats tend to be more independent than dogs, which can have positive outcomes on the daily life of someone who struggles with anxiety or overwhelming stress. Cats can be fairly simple to care for. They don’t need frequent walks outside or specific training to be an emotional support for their owner.

Dog ownership is very fulfilling for dog lovers, but cat ownership is not the same as owning a dog. Cats don’t need to be individually trained to obey commands like sit, stay, or yield. Cats exist and adapt to their owner’s lives well without needing to learn commands to behave.

Which disabilities qualify for an ESA cat?

Emotional support cats can help with a wide range of mental and emotional disabilities:

Anxiety

Anxiety amplifies feelings of fear and dread. Anxiety can cause a fixation on these emotions, causing severe physical symptoms like rapid heartbeat, sudden sweating, and feelings of restlessness. Feelings of anxiousness can arise suddenly and seemingly out of the blue or as a result of triggers around you, like when you’re faced with work stress, family problems, or a big test.

Depression

Depression is a medical condition that sometimes occurs because of family history, certain medications, or a health issue or illness. This is a health disorder that results in a person feeling overwhelmed by severe dejection or loneliness. Depression can also make people feel overwhelmed by an intense, persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest in activities they used to love.

Attention deficit disorder

Attention deficit disorder, or ADD can negatively affect a person’s life. ADD can hinder a person’s ability to stay focused on tasks, and sometimes people with ADD struggle to sit still for long periods. People who suffer from ADD can also have trouble showing self-control. All of these symptoms can have negative effects on a person’s life.

Bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder can cause many negative feelings in a person’s life, including anxiety, guilt, loss of interest, apathy, apprehension, discontent, or hopelessness. Whether a person experiences only one or many of these symptoms, these symptoms can negatively affect a person’s wellbeing and life.

Chronic stress

Chronic stress can occur for a variety of reasons. If a person is faced with pressures in their home life or work life or if they experience a traumatic event, they could develop chronic stress. People with chronic stress may experience painful physical symptoms like headaches, irritability, or fatigue.

Post-traumatic stress disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, can have a negative effect on a person’s life and mental health. PTSD can cause flashbacks, severe anxiety, or uncontrollable thoughts and feelings.

Agoraphobia

Agoraphobia is a fear of places and situations that can sometimes cause feelings of panic, helplessness, or embarrassment. Sometimes these feelings can arise in social situations or suddenly with other triggers. Triggers can include places or situations where feelings of panic and anxiety previously happened. Triggers can lead to an intense desire to avoid these places or situations.

Panic attacks

Sometimes people can experience sudden feelings of intense fear and anxiety, and they can sometimes occur for unknown reasons or triggers. Physical symptoms of panic attacks include fast breathing, rapid heartbeat, or a racing heart. A panic attack can occur quickly and suddenly.

There is no official list of disabilities that qualify for an emotional support cat. Every person is unique, and every mental illness is different. A qualified, licensed mental health professional can help you figure out whether an ESA cat could help you.

Legal protections for emotional support cats

Some laws protect felines who are designated as ESAs. These laws relate to travel and housing.

ESA cat

Travel protections

Understanding the existing travel protections for emotional support cats can be confusing. Laws for ESAs and service dogs are found in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). This law prohibits air carriers from discriminating against passengers with disabilities. It also requires airlines to accommodate disabled passengers in specific ways.

The ACAA provides full access rights to trained service dogs. This means that an individual can keep their service dog with them in the plane’s cabin while they fly. Airlines aren’t allowed to charge extra fees for service dogs.

Up until the beginning of 2021, the ACAA rules for service dogs also applied to emotional support animals. However, the U.S. DOT amended the law in January 2021, so the language now excludes ESAs. Under the new law, air carriers are no longer required to accommodate a passenger’s ESA. Airlines aren’t prohibited from providing access to emotional support pets, but they don’t have to.

As such, many airlines have ended their ESA programs. Some carriers, including Air France, Latam Airlines, and Westjet, currently allow emotional support pets to fly in the cabin for free. However, most other airlines now treat ESAs as pets; they must fly in the cargo hold of the plane, and they may incur additional fees. It’s best to contact your airline before your flight to verify its ESA rules.

Housing protections

Even though the ACAA no longer supports ESAs, the Fair Housing Act (FHA) does. The FHA prohibits housing providers from discriminating against individuals with disabilities and their assistance animals. This includes emotional support pets, so landlords have a legal requirement to make reasonable accommodations for ESAs.

In practice, this means that your landlord must allow you to keep your ESA in your home. Emotional support cats and other animals are not subject to a housing provider’s pet restrictions, nor can a landlord charge additional fees for an ESA. As long as you can provide an official ESA document detailing your need for an emotional support cat, the housing provider must accommodate you. Legally, a signed ESA form is all you need under the FHA; you do not need to provide your landlord with any additional information about your condition.

There are some cases when a landlord can refuse to accommodate an ESA: if the animal could inflict severe physical damage to the property, threaten the health and safety of others, or cause a significant financial burden to the housing provider. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provides more details. However, there should be few (if any) housing circumstances that would not allow you to keep an emotional support cat.

What about an emotional support cat registration?

ESA cat

You can find websites that offer emotional support cat registration or certification. However, these organizations are usually scams. There is no official emotional support animal registry or certification process. An ESA document from your healthcare provider is all you need to verify your cat’s status as an emotional support animal.

How do you qualify for an emotional support cat?

All you need to qualify for an emotional support cat is proof of a mental or emotional disability that an ESA would help. You should get your mental illness symptoms evaluated by a licensed mental health professional (LMHP) or your general physician. If your medical provider agrees that an ESA would help you cope with the effects of your condition, they can write and sign an official letter stating so.

You don’t need to have a pet or animal with special training to qualify for a support pet. Some animals, like service dogs, need to be specifically trained, but support pets do not. To qualify for a support pet, you will need to find a professional to assess your mental well-being. Federal laws require this assessment to be done with a licensed mental health professional. Mental health professionals recognize the need for an ESA and can determine this need after meeting with a person. Consultations can occur over the phone or video chat. Many mental health professionals will tell you that support animals can be any animal that calms you and offers emotional support. Dogs, cats, miniature horses, miniature pigs, and ferrets are all common ESAs.

Once you discuss your concerns with a doctor, they will decide if you would benefit from the companionship of an animal. Because animals provide emotional support, they may determine that your condition can be improved with the help of a pet. If so, they will issue an official document stating your need for an emotional support pet. Then, this letter can help you avoid having to pay additional fees for housing.

How is an ESA letter different from an ESA registry?

As stated, there is no legitimate ESA registry, database, or certification process for emotional support pets. Even if you pay a fee to a site that offers to “register” your emotional support cat, that registration does not have any legal power. The only way to get legal protection for your emotional support cat is with an ESA document signed by your physician or LMHP.

What are the benefits of emotional support cats?

ESA cat

Emotional support cats offer many unique benefits for individuals with mental and emotional challenges.

Small Size

Cats offer a fantastic alternative to dogs for people who prefer a smaller animal or who are not “dog people.” Even the largest cat breeds usually weigh less than 25 pounds, and most domestic cats are closer to 10 pounds. Cats are small enough that most people can pick them up and snuggle them, making them perfect for providing comfort during times of high stress, anxiety, and emotional turmoil.

Cats don’t need a lot of room to move around, so they can thrive in most living environments. They don’t eat a lot, so food costs stay pretty low. It’s also easy to travel with an emotional support cat. They can fit in small carriers, so airlines may be more willing to allow them in the cabin.

Minimal Maintenance

Cats are perhaps the most self-contained domestic animals. They need very little hands-on care, and they tend to deal with separation better than other pets. As such, they can be excellent ESAs for people who work outside the home during the day. They are also suitable for individuals who don’t have the time or desire to walk a dog.

In most cases, cats keep themselves very clean, so you don’t have to worry about giving your cat a bath or grooming them often. It’s easy to teach most cats how to use a litter box, so there isn’t much cleaning to do.

Indoor Suitability

Some emotional support pets, especially dogs, need regular access to the outdoors. Cats are the opposite; most are completely content living entirely indoors. This is a fantastic benefit for emotional support animal owners who live in places without easy outdoor access.

A cat can be a great ESA choice for an individual who lives in rental housing. The law prevents landlords from discriminating against tenants with ESAs and requires them to accommodate assistance animals unless doing so would be a significant financial burden. Cats are very common house pets allowed in most housing complexes, so there should be few (if any) landlord issues with an emotional support cat.

How do I certify an emotional support cat?

ESA cat

You don’t have to do anything to certify or register your emotional support cat. You just need to get an official letter with your healthcare provider’s recommendation for your ESA cat plus their signature.

1. Find a mental health professional.

A physician or mental health professional can determine whether you could benefit from an ESA. The first step toward getting an emotional support cat (or obtaining ESA status for a cat you already have) is getting evaluated by an LMHP who can diagnose your condition and help you figure out the best ways to manage your symptoms. If your LMHP determines that you would benefit from an ESA, they “prescribe” one with an official ESA document.

While there are many types of medical professionals who can draft and sign an ESA form, there are a few rules you need to follow. Most importantly, the physician, psychologist, therapist, or other mental health professional you see must have an active license to practice in your state.

An ESA document is not unlike a prescription, and it’s not something to be taken lightly. It’s essential to find an LMHP who is a good fit for you and can become a partner in your mental health management. However, you also want to find a professional who believes in the value of ESAs and is willing to consider your reasons for wanting one. Pettable simplifies the process by connecting you with a caring mental health professional who can write an ESA document that satisfies your state’s requirements.

2. Schedule an evaluation.

Your primary care physician, family doctor, therapist, or LMHP must evaluate you to determine whether you have a mental or emotional disability. They must also determine whether an emotional support animal would help you cope with the symptoms of your mental illness.

While you can begin by contacting the LMHP through email or text, you will need to meet for your evaluation. The law requires medical providers to conduct a live consultation before making a diagnosis and treatment recommendation. In-person, telephone calls, and video chats all meet the requirement.

If you already have a diagnosis for your mental illness, you may be able to get an ESA letter from the medical professional who is managing your treatment. You may even already have a cat that you feel comforts and supports you. In that case, your healthcare provider can draft an ESA form for your existing pet. If you don’t yet have an emotional support cat but think you would benefit from one, your therapist can tell what to look for in a potential ESA.

If you don’t have a diagnosed emotional or mental disability but experience symptoms of a mental health issue, it’s important to schedule a consultation. Mental illness often goes undiagnosed, but meeting with an LMHP can be the first step toward effective treatment.

3. Get your ESA letter.

During your consultation with a mental health professional, you can discuss emotional support pets to determine whether one would help alleviate your symptoms. ESAs can provide comfort for a wide variety of mental illnesses and emotional conditions, so there is a high chance that your condition would qualify for an emotional support cat.

If your LMHP thinks that you would benefit from an ESA, they can write an official letter with their recommendation. This letter provides the legal support for your ESA, giving you the evidence you need for housing accommodations.

The letter should be drafted on your healthcare provider’s official letterhead and include all the essential details: your name, your condition, and the recommendation for an ESA. The letter should include the breed details for your emotional support cat (if you already have one). Your LMHP’s full name, title, and license number need to be listed, and the letter must be signed and dated.

It’s important to note that there are some fraudulent organizations that claim to provide fill-in-the-blank ESA letters. These documents are not legally binding. A valid ESA document must include the specific details of your case and be written and signed by a licensed professional who has evaluated you. Make sure you get a legitimate ESA form from your LMHP.

What’s the difference between an ESA and a service animal?

ESA cat

While both ESAs and service animals provide essential help to people with disabilities, there are several key differences. Service animals are specially trained to perform certain tasks to help people with mental, physical, sensory, psychiatric, or intellectual disabilities. Because they help their owners with essential daily tasks, service animals are not considered pets. They have full public-access rights, even in places that do not allow pets.

Currently, only dogs are recognized as service animals, and they can do many different things:

  • Guide individuals with blindness or low vision (guide dogs)
  • Assist people with autism in social situations
  • Provide diabetic and allergy alerts
  • Help people with hearing loss respond to alarms (hearing dogs)
  • Protect people during seizures
  • Serve as companions for individuals with PTSD or anxiety (psychiatric service dogs)

Emotional support pets can help people with emotional and mental disabilities, but they aren’t trained to do any specific tasks. ESAs provide comfort through their presence. While an emotional support animal may be vital for an individual with mental illness, an ESA doesn’t have the same training or rights as a service dog.

4 ways to spot fake ESA letters

Among other legitimate options, Pettable facilitates the process of getting a legal ESA letter for your pet. However, fake ESA letters exist too. Look for these common signs of a fraudulent document.

1. The document is a “certification” or “registration” letter.

There are no official databases or registries for ESAs. Providers that charge fees to register or certify emotional support pets are scams. ESA letters from these organizations are likely fake.

2. The letter isn’t based on a mental health evaluation.

The law requires medical professionals to evaluate patients before “prescribing” an emotional support animal. To get a legitimate ESA document, you need to complete a consultation with a medical professional who is licensed in your state. Don’t trust a provider that offers DIY letters.

3. The letter is generic or missing critical information.

You can’t use a fill-in-the-blank document as an ESA letter. To provide legal protection for your emotional support animal, a letter must include specific details:

  • Full legal names: yours and your healthcare provider’s
  • The mental health professional’s license information
  • Details about your mental illness or disability
  • Your healthcare provider’s recommendation of an ESA to alleviate symptoms of your condition
  • A basic description of the prescribed ESA, including species and breed information

The letter should also be dated and written on your healthcare provider’s official letterhead.

4. The letter isn’t signed by a licensed medical professional.

A legitimate ESA document needs to be signed by a medical professional who is licensed to practice in your state. There are many different healthcare providers who can write an emotional support animal letter, including psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, and primary care physicians.

FAQs on emotional support animal certification/registration for cats

ESA cat

Find answers to common questions about emotional support pets.

Are cats good emotional support animals?

Felines can be mild-mannered, calm companions for anyone who struggles with social anxiety, depression, or any other medical need. Cats, in some ways, are more independent than dogs, which can cut down on the stress that can sometimes come with owning a pet.

Can I make my cat an emotional support animal?

If you meet with a licensed professional, your doctor can determine if you should consider your cat an emotional support animal. Once you meet with a doctor and discuss your concerns, they will determine if your cat should be an ESA.

What qualifies a cat as an emotional support animal?

Cats don’t need special training to be considered emotional support pets. Because cats are not recognized as service animals, and service cats do not exist, there isn’t any special training that cats need to serve their humans as emotional support.

Can cats help with anxiety?

Cats can lower feelings of stress and anxiety. A cat's purr is also scientifically known to calm a person’s nervous system and lower a person’s blood pressure. Cats can also ease feelings of loneliness and depression, which can sometimes accompany anxiety.

Can a cat be a service animal?

No. Service animals and emotional support pets are different. Service animals receive special training to perform vital tasks for their owners. Emotional support pets provide comfort for mental and emotional disabilities. Currently, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) only recognizes dogs as service animals.

Can cats be service animals for anxiety?

No matter the health struggle, as stated above, cats cannot be service animals for people. While a cat can be a support animal or work in animal assisted therapy, they cannot be considered service animals.

What cat breeds qualify as an ESA?

There are no rules about which breeds can be emotional support pets so any cat breed can qualify with a signed emotional support animal letter.

Is ESA certification the same as ESA registration?

They are the same in that neither one validates the legal rights of an ESA – only an official letter does that. Websites that offer ESA registration or certification services are usually scams designed to collect fees from unsuspecting users.

Is there an ESA registry?

There are numerous online sites claiming to be ESA registries, but there is no official emotional support animal database that federal or state governments recognize.

Can I fly with my emotional support animal?

ESAs are no longer protected under the Air Carrier Access Act, so airlines may make their own policies about ESAs. Some airlines still allow you to keep your ESA with you in the cabin for free. Many others have suspended their ESA programs and require emotional pets to fly in the cargo area for additional fees.

Can emotional support animals go anywhere?

Emotional support pets don’t have the same freedoms as trained service dogs, which are allowed everywhere. The FHA’s legal protections for ESAs only apply to housing in the U.S. If you want to take your ESA to a restaurant, public space, store, private business, or foreign country, you will have to follow the establishment’s rules for emotional support pets.

Can hotels charge for emotional support animals?

Yes. FHA protections for ESAs don’t apply to hotels and resorts. Each hotel may make its own rules about access and fees for ESAs.

Can you have more than one emotional support animal?

You may have more than one animal that provides comfort and support for your emotional or mental disabilities. To ensure legal protections for all your emotional support pets, you must have an official letter.

Depending on your state laws, your LMHP may be able to include multiple ESAs in a single letter. Some states require separate letters. Pettable makes it easy to connect with a mental health professional who is licensed in your state and familiar with all applicable laws.

Are emotional support animals allowed in stores?

Stores, restaurants, and other businesses are not governed by the Fair Housing Act, so they may make their own rules about dogs, cats, and other emotional support pets. An ESA document doesn’t require stores to change their animal policies. But it's still a good idea to get your pet registered so you have your paperwork on hand whenever you may need it.

Do emotional support animals fly for free?

There are some airlines that allow ESAs to fly in the passenger cabin for free with the proper documentation. Before your flight, contact your airline about its emotional support animal policies and fees.

Do emotional support animals count towards a pet limit?

In general, housing rules about pets don’t apply to emotional support pets. For example, if your apartment complex doesn’t allow pets, that restriction can’t prevent you from keeping your ESA as long as you have an official letter.

Likewise, your emotional support animal doesn’t count toward the number of pets you are allowed to have because they aren’t pets in a certain sense. A landlord must allow you to keep an emotional support cat even if the rules only allow tenants to have dogs as pets, or vice versa.

In some cases, a landlord may be able to place restrictions on your ESAs. The HUD states that the FHA allows exceptions for situations that would cause an “undue financial and administrative burden on the housing provider.” For example, a landlord could probably make a solid legal case prohibiting a tenant from keeping 10 emotional support cats in a small apartment.

Cats Can Be Wonderful Emotional Support Animals

Despite their reputation for aloofness, cats are often exceptionally comforting for individuals with mental illnesses or emotional difficulties. If you have a cat that helps you cope with your mental disability, it’s essential to get an official letter designating them as an ESA. Pettable connects you with an LMHP who can evaluate your case and write a legally binding letter that confers ESA status on your cat. With this documentation, you can keep your emotional support cat with you no matter where you choose to live.

About the author
Susana Bradford
Susana Bradford
Susana Bradford is a conceptual copywriter with more than ten years of editorial experience. She is a frequent contributor on AllThingsNature, where she specializes in education and parenting content. She loves to cook Italian food, and likes to play piano and make pottery in her free time.