This post has been brewing in the back of my mind for a long time now, and one that I've really debated publishing. Knowing how enriching ferrets can be to our lives, it's no surprise that many consider them a form of therapy ("ferrapy"!) Their antics and energy can brighten even the gloomiest day.
Given how much happiness they can bring us, it's no surprise that some have considered ferrets for use as an Emotional Support Animal or ESA.
What is an ESA?
According to MSU Animal Law website, an ESA is "... a companion animal that provides therapeutic benefit to an individual with a mental or psychiatric disability."
So, if you have a verifiable disability (listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition) and have a need for emotional support with your companion animal, then you may qualify for housing accommodation. Note that "need" does not cover a need for companionship.
I'd also like to note that ESA are not service animals. A service animal is one that is specifically trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. This can include pulling a wheelchair, helping a person who is blind navigate, or act as a health alert. The laws that pertain to service animals are different than those of ESAs.
What exceptions can be made for ESAs?
There are only 2 exceptions that can me made to ESAs, listed below. ESAs are not entitled to enter restaurants, hotels, or other public places of business.
1- ESAs are "viewed as a 'reasonable accommodation' in a housing unit that has a 'no pets' rule for its residents" under the Fair Housing Act. (AnimalLaw) This means that with a letter from a health professional, a housing provider is obligated to make a reasonable accommodation, and is not permitted to charge an extra "pet fee". Whether or not ESAs are permitted in dorm housing is debated, and may be open to interpretation. That said, most universities are willing to accommodate. The act does not include condos or hotels.
2- ESAs may be permitted to fly on various airlines. Whether or not ferrets specifically are allowed depends on the airline. Jet Blue, for example, does not allow ferrets, even if they are an ESA.
American, United, Alaska, and Delta airlines do not appear to have any restrictions regarding ferrets as ESAs.
All of the above airlines require documentation in the form of a letter, and/or an official authorization form (accessible on their respective websites). Most require the following:
- that the person has a disability recognized in the DSM-IV
- that the person needs the animal as an accommodation for flying
- a letter from a licensed mental health practitioner that you are under the care of containing the date, the health professional's license, and the issuing state.
The short answer is no, you are not required to register your ESA in any database or website. There are many websites out there who claim to be a registry for ESAs, claiming they are "official".
I'll say it again: None of these websites are legitimate. There is no federally recognized registry. These websites may mail you a certificate or patch, but these items have no more weight (and may even have less!) than the letter described above! Don't waste your money!
All that is needed for an ESA is a letter from a health practitioner as mentioned above.
Just to prove how shady these sites are, I decided to go ahead and try to register my ferret Wesley as an Emotional Support Animal.
For Step 1, all I had to do was confirm I had a disability as described in the list given. In the essence of full disclosure, I will admit right now that I do not have a diagnosed emotional or psychological disability. I do have some anxiety and depression related to another health condition, but have not been officially diagnosed
But I checked the box anyway. On to Step 2!
On Step 2, all i had to do was confirm that my animal met the criteria described. For an off-leash animal such as a ferret, all this means is that my ferret does not show aggression towards other humans or animals.
Check! Wesley is such a snuggle bug!
Yay! Wesley is now "officially" registered! If I pay the ridiculous fee of $65 I can have a certificate, photo ID, vest, and certificate mailed to me, even though I have no diagnosed mental disability! (insert sarcasm here)
Even with all of the information out there, I've read many posts on FB groups about how people can "get around" housing requirements and airline restrictions.
(example: Person 1 needs to find new apartment, not many allow ferrets. Person 2 comments "just have your doctor write a note")
Additionally, I don't know many people who only own 1 ferret. If a person were to claim the need for several emotional support ferrets, then they would need documentation supporting this need from their health practitioner. The doctor would likely need to provide documentation that each support animal alleviated some symptom of the disability.
Those that game the system give all with ESAs a bad name, and could result in tighter restrictions in the future.
So please, take your time when considering a ferret as your emotional support companion.