It’s possible to get a letter for an emotional service animal (ESA) for free, or at least at a low cost. You DO NOT have to pay an online service for a letter.
Of course, there are plenty of ways to spend money on an ESA letter. Due to the increasing popularity of emotional support animals, a lot of sites have popped up catering to people seeking a letter prescribing an emotional support animal online. Take a look at the Google search results for “ESA letter” and you’ll find many sites providing this service:
These sites operate by having you take a survey and perhaps some brief interaction with a mental health professional, and then sending you a letter indicating that you require an ESA animal.
I wouldn’t say that these sites are outright scams, but they’re definitely questionable. Certainly, you shouldn’t jump to buying an ESA letter consultation online. These online “letter mills” are actually a poor source of letters. Why? Because the letters must state that you are under the care of the doctor or mental health professional that is recommended you for a letter.
Why using an online ESA letter service may NOT be a good idea
Are you really under their care after a brief online survey or a brief phone call? A landlord or airline who finds out that an individual’s letter is sourced from one of these websites may challenge the letter on that basis. There has been a good deal of push-back from the medical community on the validity of a diagnosis taken from an online survey.
Further, these websites don’t necessarily follow the rules regarding licensing for mental health professionals. State laws differ regarding what type of licensing is required for someone to treat you. These laws are ever-changing. Is it necessary that the therapist from the online service be licensed in your state? Possibly. Will the therapist writing this letter necessarily be licensed in your state? Maybe, maybe not. That means that your therapist may not actually have the authority to treat you.
Landlords and Airlines Increasingly Skeptical
Landlords and airlines are already wise to the fact that people are using ESAs as loopholes to live and travel with their pets, even if they don’t actually require the emotional support. They’re calling for greater oversight of the ESA granting process, and casting a skeptical eye at these online businesses that allow users to spend 5 minutes online, submit their credit card details and then get a letter delivered within a couple days.
NBC News in San Diego did an expose on the subject, as did the Florida-based WINK news. Both articles expressed concern over the potential for people to abuse the system whereby people can obtain an ESA letter from a brief online questionnaire. They also cited professionals in the medical and airline industries disapproving of these sites and their methods. From the WINK news article linked above:
“It’s not really adequate to simply take in some survey information and issue somebody a letter that’s a real diagnosis or some disability other than the fact that we all like dogs,” said William Allen, a professor of medical ethics at the University of Florida College of Medicine.
Online ESA letters are Expensive
One more reason you may wish to avoid buying an ESA consultation and letter online: It’s pricey. Here is one of the leading provider’s prices:
$200 for an ESA letter? Sure, these services can be had for cheaper, and in typical internet marketer fashion, these companies hit you with coupons to incentive the purchase. But the cost is still high.
How to get a letter for free or cheap
One thing to note is that an ESA letter or note can be from any medical professional or therapist who is treating you — it does not necessarily need to be from a psychiatrist, medical doctor or psychologist. It can be from your general practitioner, licensed therapist (not just a psychologist), nurse practitioner, etc.
If you have a disability that involves psychiatric symptoms or pain, and your practitioner believes that an animal will help, your practitioner should sign off on a note indicating that you require an ESA.
If you’re getting a note for travel purposes, you should check the airline sites for requirements. For example, United Airlines has their information here. Also know that airlines and rental properties often won’t take a note, and instead require that a health practitioner fill out a form that is particular to that airline or rental company.
If you have insurance:
Go to your doctor or health practitioner. Or possibly just email them, if you’re already being treated for a psychiatric condition. Explain to them that you think an emotional support animal will help, and that you require a letter for housing and or travel purposes.
Despite the controversy surrounding emotional support animals, there is a good amount of research establishing that ESAs can help people cope with certain symptoms. You may wish to show your doctor some of the literature to back up your claim that an animal will help you.
Here is a heavily-cited PDF from PAWS in San Francisco that highlights the proven benefits of companion animals. Another resource–though one that requires payment to access–is Harvard Medical School’s publication on the health benefits of dog ownership called “Get Healthy, Get a Dog: The health benefits of canine companionship.”
Though a brief note may due, it’s best if the ESA letter follow a certain format. If your practitioner is not familiar with the typical requirements of an ESA letter, it may be best to provide a sample.
Want to see examples of letters fulfilled by therapists that were arranged via a couple of the leading online ESA letter websites? The WINK news story that I previously mentioned published two such samples on their website – here are the links:
Here is another brief sample letter that you may wish to provide to your health practitioner as a reference.
If you don’t have insurance:
If you don’t have an insurance you can probably find a a free or subsidized physical or mental health clinic to speak with someone about a diagnosis and an ESA letter. Even if you’re not able to get a letter, a diagnosis may help you get half-way there. Google searching free medical clinics in your area is a good start.
Still want to get a letter online? Skip the middleman and go directly to a mental health specialist
If you want to do everything remotely, without a face-to-face meeting, you still don’t need to use one of the online ESA letter companies. You still have plenty of economical options
It may be cheaper to just seek out a therapist, tell them that you’re seeking a letter for your condition, and see if they’ll take you as a client for one or two teletherapy sessions. “Telethereapy” refers to therapy over phone or email, and is becoming a common alternative to face-to-face therapy.
You can even try contacting a freelance therapist licensed to practice in your state on Upwork.com. In fact, I know for certain that some of the ESA letter companies source their therapists on Upwork. Why not skip the middleman and the high price, negotiate the price beforehand with someone who is qualified to both diagnose you and provide an ESA letter?
What if the above doesn’t work?
First, I want to emphasize that a requirement is that you have a mental health condition. ESA letters are not loopholes to allow your pet to live or fly with you. They’re to help alleviate symptoms for people who are suffering from psychiatric disabilities. It’s not OK to fake an illness so that you can get accommodation for your animal. It’s unethical and it’s the reason why emotional support animals and the people who need them are under increased scrutiny.
That said, if you have depression, anxiety, PTSD, etc., and your symptoms can be helped by the presence of an emotional support animal, you certainly SHOULD be able to get an ESA letter. Lack of funds should not be a permanent obstacle Just as there are low-cost ways to treat these conditions with more conventional solutions, the same resources can help you treat your condition by affirming that you are allowed an ESA. Start by Googling “low cost therapy” or “free therapy” in your area and go from there.