Cats, dogs, and birds are obvious and common choices for emotional support animals, but what about those of us who love tortoises? Or perhaps we already have a pet tortoise and want the legal and official status for our companion. Is it an option for us?
Can a tortoise be an emotional support animal? Yes! In the United States, a tortoise can definitely be an emotional support animal. The legislation which defines emotional support animals does not require the creature to be of any specific species, breed, or size to qualify as an emotional support animal.
For the rest of the world, the answer is that it depends. If legislation exists around emotional support animals, a tortoise is likely to receive the same level of legal protection as any other emotional support animal. If no such legislation exists, things may be more challenging (but you could still be free to use a tortoise to support you emotionally).
Let’s see the details now!
Can A Tortoise Be An Emotional Support Animal?
There is nothing, anywhere in the world, to stop you from seeking emotional support from a tortoise or, indeed, any other creature that you may legally own as a pet. However, for the purposes of this article (which would otherwise, end up book length) we are going to look at the legal status of a tortoise as an emotional support animal within the United States.
An emotional support animal (which may also be referred to as “an assistance animal”) is defined as an animal that acts as a companion that provides a person with a mental or psychiatric disability with a therapeutic benefit.
That is, it should alleviate one or more of the symptoms associated with the person’s conditions by providing emotional support and that’s it.
There are no restrictions regarding breed, species, size of animal, etc. A tortoise is every bit as good a choice of emotional support animal as a dog, cat, hamster, etc.
Can A Tortoise Be A Service Animal?
No, service animals have very different roles than emotional support animals. A service animal is designed to carry out tasks on behalf of a person with disabilities, or at the very least to help out. These are activities such as pushing a wheelchair or getting help when someone has a seizure. There is no evidence that a tortoise can be reliably trained to do such tasks.
Nor is an emotional support animal the same as a “therapy animal”. A therapy animal is trained to carry out work with a wide range of people and is usually based in a place where many people with emotional issues pass through (such as a hospital or a school) and is not usually dedicated to working with a single individual.
This does not make an emotional support tortoise any less valuable. It just means it cannot be treated as a service or therapy animal.
What Rights Does An Emotional Support Animal Have?
In the United States an emotional support animal has specific rights with regard to housing and travel. There are currently no such rights regarding emotional support animals and employment, however, current practice is to tolerate such animals within the working environment as long as you can provide an ESA letter (see further down for details of this letter).
These rights are quite complex and while we will try to summarize them during the course of this article – if you need legal advice regarding your emotional support tortoise, we would strongly suggest taking advice from a lawyer or other qualified legal practitioner.
Does A Tortoise Need To Be Specially Trained To Be An Emotional Support Animal?
No. There is no qualification or training needed by any animal to provide emotional support. Given that emotional support is based on the perception of the animal’s owner, there is no need to test the animal involved to see if they have any particular qualities.
An emotional support animal is not expected to carry out any particular tasks (over and above any task that a pet of a similar species could provide).
They are also allowed to demonstrate behaviors that might otherwise be problematic if a pet were to behave that way – such as they may urinate or defecate in public or bite people.
However, as you might expect, it’s wise for the owner of an emotional support animal to try and keep it under control as much as possible and to clean up after them if they are able.
How Do I Prove My Tortoise Is An Emotional Support Animal?
If you wish to have any animal become your emotional support animal on an official basis – you must get an Emotional Support Animal Letter (an ESA) that states you are required to be accompanied by your emotional support tortoise.
This must be issued by a medical professional (specifically a physician, psychiatrist or mental health practitioner) who has some responsibility for your care, though they do not need to be your primary carer physician. In fact, it’s quite common for a primary physician to refer people to another mental health specialist to obtain an ESA letter.
However, for airline use – the requirement is that you must have been treated by the doctor who issues the ESA in the last year. An airline is legally entitled to reject an ESA that is over 1 year old. Some airlines will require that the ESA is also on the letterhead of your physician and will not accept a note on ordinary paper.
It is worth noting that if you have such an ESA you are then legally allowed to board commercial flights in the USA with your animal as a companion. However, this right does not extend to international flights where other more complex rules regarding animal transit may apply.
What Happens If Someone Claims Their Tortoise Is An Emotional Support Animal When It Is Not?
This is an absolute legal minefield when it comes to travel and renting. Unfortunately, there are people who try to circumvent the rules on flying with animals or renting bans on pets by claiming their pets are emotional support animals.
In 2018, a lady tried to claim that her peacock was an emotional support peacock and insisted on it being allowed to accompany her onto a plane. The claim was false and clearly a peacock is not a practical companion on a plane (unlike a tortoise).
The upshot is that the law changed in some states. There are now at least 23 states where it is a criminal offence for you to claim that an animal is an emotional support animal when it has not been certified as such.
Airlines have also become much stricter about their interpretation of the legislation and if you can’t provide an ESA letter that meets the airline’s criteria, you are unlikely to be allowed on board with an emotional support tortoise.
Can Someone Challenge The Status Of A Tortoise As An Emotional Support Animal?
Given that your legal protections only extend to travel with an emotional support tortoise and to rent accommodation with one, the only people who may challenge its status are the airline’s representative and the landlord or their representative.
However, it’s important to know that the only challenge they may make is to demand an up to date ESA letter. They may not, under any circumstances, demand to know details of your disability or for access to medical records or other records of your impairment or disability. In short, your right to privacy remains protected under the relevant legislation.
Can I Take My Emotional Support Tortoise On A Plane?
Yes, an emotional support animal including an emotional support tortoise is allowed to accompany you on a plane in the United States with no additional charges levied on you. You are required to show the relevant paperwork (an up to date ESA letter that meets the airline’s criteria) and that your animal is no danger to others. It is not required to be caged.
However, it is possible that an airline can refuse this right as a tortoise might be considered an “unusual” animal under their policy. If this is the case, you may still be able to pay for the tortoise to accompany you and store it in a cage under you seat.
The best thing to do if you want an emotional support tortoise to accompany you is to contact the airline in advance and get them to walk you through their position on this matter.
Can I Take My Emotional Support Tortoise Anywhere?
No. While you may take your tortoise anywhere within the United States (as long as your journey originates in the United States) – you may not take it overseas. There are strict rules regarding the international trafficking of animals and many countries do not recognize the “emotional support animal” at all.
If you fly with a tortoise to another country, you risk having the tortoise quarantined or confiscated, you may also be charged with criminal offences resulting in potential fines and/or imprisonment.
If you want to take your tortoise overseas, you must contact the airline you wish to fly with and obtain information as to whether this is possible and if it is, what the process for such travel will be. You can expect this to be relatively expensive and it is very unlikely that your emotional support tortoise would be allowed to accompany you on the flight.
Can I Be Asked To Pay Extra For An Emotional Support Tortoise?
When it comes to renting a home, you cannot be charged any additional fee or deposit to bring your emotional support animal. This includes an exemption for any charges normally levied on pets.
However, it is perfectly legal for a landlord to charge you for any damage caused by your emotional support tortoise and they may deduct these costs from your security deposit when you leave if you have not paid them prior to your departure.
You may need to show your landlord an ESA letter, however, before they remove such provisions from their contract.
Am I Obliged To Clean Up After An Emotional Support Tortoise?
There is no legal obligation to clean up after any emotional support animal though a landlord may charge you a fee for any damage that this causes.
However, there is both an ethical and moral obligation to clean up after your emotional support tortoise if you are physically and mentally able to do so. Just because you’re not compelled by law to do something doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it.
This is particularly important for tortoises because they can carry the salmonella bacteria which can cause food poisoning which can result in severe illness and even the death of other people.
Are There Any Reasons That I Can’t Rent A Place With An Emotional Support Tortoise?
While you are allowed to rent a home without prejudice under the Fair Housing Act, there are some exceptions to this rule and you may find that you cannot rent a home with your emotional support tortoise under the following provisions:
- The landlord is a private owner of single-family housing which has been sold/rented without the use of a broker (though the owner may not own more than three such homes)
- The landlord operates the housing as part of a private club or organization which only provides housing to members of that club or organization
- The animal compromises the safety of other people in the building or their property (which seems unlikely with a tortoise)
- You cannot care properly for your tortoise (and if you are already a tenant, the landlord may be able to have your animal removed on this basis)
- You are neglecting your tortoise and the neglect endangers the tortoise’s safety (the landlord may request law enforcement or animal control to intervene in these circumstances if you are already renting)
- You cannot provide an ESA letter or if there are proven methods which would provide equal benefit to your disability in a more convenient manner
- You fail to adhere to any other provision of your lease (a person, even with a disability, may be evicted for this)
- The request to waive the “no pets” policy constitutes an unfair burden on the landlord (of either a financial or administrative manner)
- The request to waive the “no pets” policy would fundamentally alter the accommodation’s structure (this is up for legal interpretation by courts and there is no strict definition of “fundamentally”
Can I Have More Than One Emotional Support Tortoise?
There is nothing in the legislation to prevent you from having more than one emotional support animal and yes, this means that technically speaking – you can have as many emotional support tortoises as you need.
You might need an individual ESA letter for each tortoise, however, if you want to rent or take them on a plane.
Does Everyone Think That Having An Emotional Support Tortoise Is A Good Idea?
We do need to add a single note of caution here – the use of emotional support animals is highly controversial.
Not only do some people claim to have emotional support animals which are not used for emotional support which can inflame passions on the subject, the truth is that there is no substantive evidence that such animals actually provide substantive benefits to those with mental or emotional problems.
In fact, there are even some studies that say such animals may increase their owner’s emotional issues rather than lessen them.
It is also understood that requesting ESA letters may have a damaging effect on the relationship between patient and treatment provider.
Most medical professionals believe that the value of such animals is minimal and that they might, at best, be used temporarily in a broader pattern of treatment. They view the issue of an ESA letter as a validation of a longer period of use for such an animal than the treatment requires.
This is why many medical professionals will refer the individual to another doctor to write such a letter – they do not want to be seen as “rubber stamping” their patient’s desire for such an animal. So, getting an ESA letter is often a more involved process than it might be.
Can a tortoise be an emotional support animal? Since any animal can be an emotional support animal, tortoises can be emotional support animals.
In the United States such animals come with legal rights with respect to travel and housing though employment is still a grey area. In the wider world, there is no guaranteed recognition of an emotional support tortoise’s legal status though if you find that a tortoise provides you with comfort, you are still entitled to utilize it for emotional support.