- Laurel Brauns
Some pet owners have taken advantage of laws meant to protect people with disabilities and mental illness. More and more pets are permitted on airplanes, in apartments and inside grocery stores and restaurants because they are considered Emotional Support Animals. Legitimate ESAs help their owners with mental health issues, ranging from anxiety and depression to post-traumatic stress disorder and agoraphobia.
For other pet owners, claiming ESA status is no more than a ticket to unrestricted access to public places with pet in tow. ESA status doesn't give pet owners the same rights as people who need their dog to safely cross the street, though it's easy to see why these two kinds of support animals may get confused.
Part of the debate lies in the interpretation of several federal laws that apply differently depending on your location: Air travel, housing and restaurant access all have a different set of rules and protections. The Americans with Disabilities Act protects people with service animals who perform tasks to move freely in public spaces and private businesses without being interrogated. But the ADA does not protect ESAs, even if their owners depend on their pets to manage their anxiety in public places, for example.
Because this distinction is unclear, dozens of online companies now profit off people's emotional attachments to their animals by promising to provide fake certifications and ESA letters from mental health providers. In the U.S., there is no federally recognized certification process for ESAs. Online ESA services are essentially a scam. At the same time, a dog wearing an official-looking ESA vest can often enter restaurants and grocery stores with no questions asked, so it's not surprising more people want to get their pets a free pass.
National Service Animal Registry (one of the many for-profit ESA certificate sellers) had 2,400 emotional support animals in its "registry" in 2011. As of March 2020, that number was over 200,000.
The two most common situations in which people could be required to prove their animal helps them with a diagnosed mental disorder is when planning air travel or trying to move into a new housing situation. The Air Carrier Access Act requires airlines to allow ESAs, but some are cracking down with stricter rules. Delta Air Lines requires owners to submit proof of animal vaccination two days before the flight. United Airlines also requires 48-hour advanced notice of the traveling ESA, along with a letter from a mental health professional testifying that the animal's owner needs the animal to help with a recognized psychiatric disorder. This letter is usually what online ESA services sell, along with certificates and official-looking ESA vests.
The best way to get an ESA letter is to develop an established relationship with a psychologist, psychiatrist, licensed professional counselor or licensed social worker, preferably one who understands the therapeutic nature of animals. While the best bet, those professionals cannot guarantee that booking a series of appointments will definitely lead to the production of an ESA letter.
"If a mental health therapist is going to write a letter in support of a client benefiting from having an ESA, to be truly ethical about this, such a letter should not be generated without knowing the client and how the ESA would truly help that individual to cope and better manage their life," said Jim Mockaitis, director of Juniper Mountain Counseling in an email to Central Oregon Pets. "Otherwise, it would be much like a doctor who has no relationship with a patient, but prescribes medication without knowing if it's appropriate. We just can't do this sort of thing if we're to be honest to our profession and our clients."
ESA owners could also be required to produce documentation for their animal when they are moving into a rental where the landlord either does not allow pets, or requires a deposit for a pet. Under the federal Fair Housing Act, no type of support animal can be barred from the property or held to standard pet rules (like extra fees).
Mockaitis said his agency receives an increasing number of calls from people likely experiencing impediments to housing because of their animals. He said usually these potential new clients want the letters quickly to use in a new rental contract or to avoid extra rental deposit fees. While some of these potential clients get angry, others actually decide to begin counseling regardless of the outcome.
"We've even had requests for both a letter and an animal!" Mockaitis said. "FYI... We don't have boxes of puppies or kittens behind our front desk.
"This misunderstanding is really unfortunate, as ESAs, when appropriate, can be a great comfort and support to individuals who struggle with mental health challenges," Mockaitis said. "We even have clients who bring their dogs to counseling sessions, and the counselor will incorporate the presence of the animal into work around emotional regulation, relaxation techniques, exploration of trauma, depression and other purposes."