Service animals help people cross streets, take transit and figure out daily tasks that a lot of us take for granted. Service animals have to go through a very comprehensive training program in order to be fully certified. However, especially in Canada, there isn’t much thought given to “emotional support animals.” (ESA). There is no certification, and no official designation that qualifies a dog as an ESA. But for people with mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder these pets are lifelines.

Recently, a major Canadian airline denied a Canadian Armed Forces veteran to board with her cat on a flight to Halifax without a carrier. The veteran, who experiences depression and anxiety, believes mental illness should be considered the same as a physical illness such as blindness. According to Statistics Canada one in five people suffer from some kind of mental illness. A ESA can help people deal with these issues.

If you or someone you know can benefit from an ESA, here are some tips to help you.

Just because one airline says it’s OK for you to keep your ESA on your lap during the flight doesn’t mean that another airline will—and some airlines will only allow dogs. A local carrier, for example, allows support animals but needs at least seven days’ notice on package vacations. Some airlines, meanwhile, require animals to be on harnesses at all times, while others will only allow pets in carriers. Phone the airline and check the rules before your flight then plan accordingly.

Even though an ESA isn’t official, you should get a letter from your doctor stating that you have a diagnosed mental health issue and that you need to travel with a support animal. Ensure the letter is on letterhead and your care provider includes his or her official credentials. The letter should also be dated less than a year from your travel dates.

In the United States, landlords who normally prohibit pets must allow ESAs in their buildings and waive any fees or pet deposits. That isn’t the case in Vancouver and some landlords might not allow an ESA.  It’s best to find a sympathetic landlord rather than take it to court.

An ESA usually provides companionship, relieves loneliness, and helps with anxiety, depression and other forms of mental illness. Although emotional support animals have proven to be very beneficial to their owners, they don’t have an official designation under Canadian law. It’s best to be up front if you’re uncertain how a person or organization will act and plan well in advance. This will decrease the number of problems you face.

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