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‘Emotional Support’ Pets: Healthy or Harmful?

A woman insisted on taking her “emotional support” turkey on a Delta flight with her, claiming the animal was essential to her well-being. Another young woman took her 70-pound pot-bellied pig on a flight with her because the pig was playing an important role in her battle against anorexia. And a man in London, England, insisted on being buried not just with one of his animals — but with his horse, cat, dog, and canary.

The human obsession with animals doesn’t stop there. In an online poll, 92 percent of millennials said they consider their pet a “member of the family,” and 74 percent believe their animals have rights equal to that of their siblings in some cases. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also found that the recent birth rate drop has been accompanied by a surge in the ownership of miniature pooches by U.S. young women.

“Anyone can bring their dog into the ER and say it’s for therapy,” said one registered nurse.

What is going on here?

First, there are several different types of animals in these situations: service animals, therapy animals, and emotional support animals. Service animals, such as seeing-eye dogs, fill a physical need for individuals struggling with physical disabilities. They receive thorough training about behavior in public spaces.

Therapy animals receive extensive training to help people feel better in emotionally difficult situations. For example, children in intensive care units in hospitals sometimes receive visits from therapy animals to help cheer them up and take their mind off the pain of their illness. The Children in Placement organization in New Haven, Connecticut, has been lobbying to get therapy animals into the court system to help children facing traumatic experiences in courtrooms, such as depositions, forensic interviews, and pre-trial preparations.

Emotional support animals fill a different purpose altogether. They require no special training — they just exist to make their owners feel better. People who struggle with mental disorders often find that owning a pet can fill a bond not otherwise filled by other people. They receive documentation from a mental health professional, certifying that they need this animal for their well-being.

Related: ‘I Hate to Leave My Animals Behind’ [1]

Emotional support animals can make a big difference for people with verified mental illness. Michael Cady, a chemical engineer in Alexandria, Virginia, has struggled to understand his father’s mental illness. His father, who wanted to remain anonymous, fights agoraphobia, which is the fear of being in public or open spaces. Cady said his father was absent for landmark events throughout his childhood, including his high school graduation.

“It’s very difficult for people who don’t have those issues to understand,” Cady told LifeZette.

Service Animal vs. Support Animal
  • Service animals are defined as dogs trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Tasks include pulling a wheelchair, guiding a person who is visually impaired, alerting someone who is having a seizure, even calming a person who suffers from PTSD.
  • An emotional support animal provides emotional support and comfort to individuals with psychiatric disabilities and other mental impairments. The animal is not specifically trained to perform tasks, nor is the animal typically granted access to places of public accommodation.
Source: http://www.animallaw.info

But recently, his father got a small dog, a chihuahua-wiener mix, and began taking it everywhere. He declined to visit his newborn grandson because Cady and his wife didn’t feel an untrained dog around their baby was a good idea. It’s hard to accept in some situations — but Cady said he recognizes the good the dog does. It helps his father get outside and into situations where he was previously unable to cope.

“I know he needs it, and even if he just thinks he needs it, then that still counts.”

But it’s altogether too easy enough to “fake” needing an emotional support animal. The list of accepted disabilities under the law includes non-specific ailments such as being “emotionally overwhelmed” and “stress.” Several websites, such as Chilhowee Psychological Services, provide online therapists who mail out letters of approval for a simple fee in lieu of doing a thorough, in-person evaluation.

Most legitimate therapists are trying to do their job, said Margaret Donohue, a licensed psychologist in Glendale, California. “While some people attempt to get their pet to pass as an emotional support animal — and there are websites that will assist with this — most therapists will assess the person carefully before writing a letter in support of an emotional support animal,” Donohue said.

Related: Empathy 101: Kids Working with Animals [2]

There are some advantages to passing off a normal pet as an emotionally necessary commodity. Paying animal shipping fees on airlines can range into the hundreds of dollars —but flying with an emotional support turkey on Delta is free. People who have these animals also avoid the pet fees and deposits that normal renters have to pay.

Hayley Baird and her husband in Anchorage, Alaska, struggled to accommodate renters who claimed they needed emotional support animals. Baird felt her renters were gaming the system.

“We weren’t allowed to charge a pet deposit or anything, even if the pet damaged the place, even though people charge deposits and things in homes that allow pets. It’s a frustrating road to go down, but if [lawmakers] allowed accommodations for both parties involved, it would be helpful.”

Emotional support animals can also cause problems in health care situations.

"As health care professionals, we legally can't ask someone about their dog or the dogs' credentials. It falls under the [Americans with Disabilities Act]. Anyone can bring their dog into the ER and say it's for therapy. From a health worker perspective, this is not good practice," said Kirsten Major, a registered nurse with Intermountain Healthcare in Logan, Utah.

Major said she is an animal lover and fan of trained therapy animals, but untrained animals in health care situations can cause serious problems — not the least of which could be severe allergic reactions from other patients.

"The ones that cause problems are the ones that bark at other patients, wander around the ER, and jump up on the bed with the patient," Major said. "I don't believe those are trained animals. Rather, it's someone trying to bring 'Fluffy' with them to the ER or their doctor's visit."

Related: The Best Critters for Kids [3]

"We need to stop worrying about hurting someone's feelings," said Jacqueline Johnson, executive director of Best Friends Animal Society in Mission Hills, California. Johnson owns a service dog that is trained to keep tabs on her breathing and prevent panic attacks. "I am not offended if someone asks about my dog — I expect it. The way someone answers your questions will tell you if the dog is genuine or not."

She added, "There are pretty stiff fines for someone trying to pass off a fake service animal — but I don't know how well those laws are enforced."