An Emotional Support Animal (ESA) is a companion animal that a medical professional has determined provides benefit for an individual with a mental or emotional disability. These animals which can include dogs, cats, parrots, and rabbits are not trained for specific commands to assist their handler. Their primary function is to provide emotional support through companionship. EAS's do not have the same public access as a Service Animal or an Assistance Animal or even a Therapy Animal. In Canada, ESA's public access is very limited.
“No Pet” Housing Policies and ESA’s
Our neighbours to the south have clear legislation surrounding ESA's for housing with their "Fair Housing Amendment Act". This 1988 US Federal amendment allows an individual, with proper documentation, to have an ESA in housing that has a “no pet” policy. While there can be confusion surrounding the inclusion of specific animals, the US does recognize the importance of companion animals living with their owners to support an individuals mental and emotional health. In Canada, legislation supporting ESA's is either non-existent or at best confusing if it does exist. Housing is mainly a provincial jurisdiction and therefore companion animals are primarily covered under Provincial legislation. Rules surrounding companion animals or "pets" in most Residential Tenancy Acts are governed by the specific lease. The lease is what governs in this situation, so if the lease states "no pets", then these conditions must be followed or the tenant is not abiding by the contract. Even if you have specific documentation from a medical professional that supports your pet as an ESA, a landlord in most provinces in Canada does not have to accept your medical note if they have a no pet policy. Service animals are completely different. Service animals are Not Pets and have specific legislation that permits their access in all public places. In Newfoundland & Labrador (NL) it’s the NL Service Animal Act (2012). ESA’s are not covered under this legislation.
Air Transportation and ESA’s
In the US there have been stories of people travelling with ESA's such as chickens, snakes, goats, and in one case a kangaroo. None of these animals would be allowed on a Canadian airline carrier due to their strict ESA guidelines. Fueled by fake ESA certifications, US air carriers are also beginning to place strict limitations on what animals can now be considered an ESA.
In Canada, both Air Canada and West Jet allow ESA's on board with their owner at no extra charge. However, these airline carriers differ in what animals they accept as an ESA. Air Canada will only accept dogs as ESA's. West Jet will allow dogs, and cats and other "unusual animals" may be accepted on a case-by-case basis. Both airlines require a letter from a medical professional that states the traveller’s medical diagnosis and/or identifies the medical professional’s registration and licensing number as well as jurisdiction. Other specific documentation is also required so please check with the airline carrier well in advance of travel to ensure you have all required documentation. Below you will find links to both Air Canada and West Jet and their specific requirements for ESA's.
ESA Certification Scams
A number of websites offer to certify your animal as an ESA for a fee. Remember that in Canada ESA’s are primarily covered under Air Travel. So check with the specific airline carrier you plan to use to inquire about their specific policies regarding ESA’s before you pay out money for an online ESA certification. ESA's Do Not have access to public establishments such as restaurants, educational facilities, or shopping malls. So even if your dog has a cute vest stating he is an “Emotional Support Animal”, no public establishment is required to allow him access. Most of these websites are scams and while they may provide you with a legitimate looking certificate and possibly a cute vest or badge, keep in mind that these certificates, vests and badges are not necessary in Canada. So save your money.
If you have a diagnosed mental or emotional disability and are looking for an animal that can assist you with your disability talk to your health care provider about a Service or Assistance Animal. ESA’s can be beneficial, however; given their limited access in Canada, a Service Animal or Assistance Animal may be the better option.
Lisa Wade MSW, RSW