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Emotional Support Animals Are Not Service Animals. Here’s Why It Matters

September 5, 2018
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Emotional Support Animals Are Not Service Animals. Here’s Why It Matters
Service Animal 1
Service animals can be immensely helpful for people who need them, but the proliferation of "emotional support animals" has led to unexpected consequences. Photo by mauinow1/Getty Images
Fido flies for free if he’s an “emotional support animal,” but that trend is putting real service animals at risk. A few activists are trying to change this.

It’s Monday in the office, and I’m on a mission to see if the mouse that continues to eat its way through my pantry can be registered as an emotional support animal. After all, it has been more effective in cutting carbs from my diet than weekly therapy.

Within five minutes of searching online, I found that if I paid $164 to one company, it would provide me with a “disability assessment and treatment recommendation letter.” This letter would allow me to position the mouse — yes, my pest — as an emotional support animal. For another $75, I could get a letter that would make it possible for me to take the tiny rodent with me on a plane for a year, no questions asked.

It’s schemes like these, along with a number of viral-worthy posts claiming peacocks and iguanas as emotional support animals, that have made the use of emotional support animals (ESAs), well, eyebrow-raising.

As a result, people who game the system to get free flights for their pets are being scrutinized more frequently — and that’s not good news for those with actual disabilities.

I had to fight for my right to have my ESA everywhere I applied for housing. It was extremely difficult dealing with housing managers who simply had been scammed so many times,” Karen Ann Young, a blind woman with PTSD who has been using a seeing eye dog along with her ESA for 33 years, tells NationSwell. “It took so long to find an apartment [because] landlords have been overrun with tenants claiming their pets are emotional support animals.”

Here are a few things you need to know about service animals, the controversy surrounding ESAs, and what’s being done to stem the rising tide of fraudulent support and service animals.

What is an ESA?

In order for an animal to be considered “of service,” the Americans with Disabilities Act requires the animal to be trained to provide a specific task — seeing eye dogs, for example.

By law, most public places are required to allow service animals. Shop owners are allowed to ask someone using a service animal two questions: “Is the animal required because of a disability?” and “What has the animal been trained to do?”

It’s a completely different set of requirements, though, for ESAs, which are regulated under the Fair Housing Act and Air Carrier Access Act. Typically, you must have a legitimate mental diagnosis and an ESA deemed necessary by a licensed psychotherapist, before your pet can fly for free (and not in the cargo hold).

But those seemingly legitimate rules have created a cottage industry for online certifications, bogus treatment letters and even online shops via Amazon that sell support animal gear.

As a result, pigs can fly. And that’s a growing problem.

Service Animal 1
Many veterans find relief from PTSD through emotional support dogs, but there’s no conclusive evidence that animals effectively treat the disorder.Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images

How ESAs turned airline travel into a nuisance

In January this year, Dexter the peacock made its owner famous after she was denied entry to her flight from Newark to Los Angeles when she claimed the bird was an ESA. And earlier this month, Southwest Airlines announced they would start allowing miniature horses on planes. (Miniature horses are recognized as service animals under the ADA.)

But many are saying “neigh” to the idea of expanding the definition of support in this context, partially because it’s feared that the ESA trend is getting out of control.

It’s difficult to know how many ESAs there are in the nation — there is no central database or oversight in terms of how such animals are registered — but airlines track the number of support animals they fly every year, which gives us some idea. Delta Airlines found that since 2015, it has flown over 250,000 service and support animals — an increase of 150 percent.

Another study found that registration for assistance dogs in California increased by 1,000 percent between 2002 and 2012. And that number is likely to rise, as Americans age and start requiring more canine support.  

“It is likely we will see more dramatic increases in the number of adults with a disability as the baby boomer population [ages] over the next 20 years,” Chad Helmick with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Anything Pawsible, a trade publication covering service animals.

Are ESAs effective?

One in five Americans deal with mental illness in a given year, and given the massive media pick up on animals helping us deal with trauma or stress, you’d think that a small furry creature — such as a hungry mouse — could represent cheap and easy therapy.

Not so much, it seems.

The science is still out on ESAs being truly effective for treating those with trauma, depression or anxiety.

Dogs, for example, have been found to help veterans with PTSD. Adopting furry animals has shown to help reduce stockbrokers’ blood pressure, and a review published this past February found that pets did, indeed, help those with mental health conditions.

But almost all of the studies that demonstrate the efficacy of pet therapy also come with a big caveat: there needs to be more research on the subject. Moreover, there is nothing conclusive to show that animals actually help more than just being cute, cuddly and generally happiness inducing.

“Despite media headlines extolling the curative powers of dolphins, dogs, horses and Guinea pigs, there is little evidence of the long-term effectiveness of emotional support animals for the treatment of mental problems,” writes Hal Herzog, a psychologist who analyzes relationships between humans and animals, for Psychology Today. “Indeed, it is possible that they can sometimes have an enabling function which actually prolongs an individual’s psychological issues.”

Airlines and states are fighting back

Because airlines are on the front lines of the ESA debate, private companies like Delta Airlines and JetBlue have created higher standards for flying with animals, such as providing proof of need through a therapist’s note and giving 48 hours notice to review animals being taken on board.

The change in policy — outside the dramatic increase in ESAs being used in travel — was implemented because of “incidents involving emotional support animals that haven’t been adequately trained to behave in a busy airport or the confined space of an aircraft,” reads JetBlue’s policy.

But states have also taken action in order to curb the trend.

Last year, the state of Washington passed a law that makes misrepresenting a pet as a service animal a civil infraction with a $500 fine. A similar law was passed in Arizona this year that also fines fraudulent service animals’ owners.

But such laws can create problems for people who rely on legitimate service animals. Some argue that the new legislation doesn’t adequately address poorly behaved non-disabled people and their pets, but rather opens up harassment for people who actually depend on their animals to help them lead normal lives.  

Perhaps a better solution is one that is less punitive than regulatory, like a nationally recognized identification system, where both dogs and trainers must pass testing and be recertified every few years — something not currently mandated under the ADA.

And though I might want to justify my use of an ESA mouse to cut back on my intake of Wonder Bread, I think it’s likely best to just stick with traditional diet and exercise.

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