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Emotional Support Animals: Helpful or Harmful?

Who could forget the woman with the emotional support peacock trying to board a plane? The part of the story people may not know is that her feathered friend spurred Delta into issuing new restrictions on the kinds of animals they allow on board. In fact, the skyrocketing number of emotional support animals in settings such as universities, restaurants and courtrooms is causing ethical confusion considering the vague laws surrounding them

What Are Emotional Support Animals?

Emotional support animals (ESA’s) are a method of therapy to help patients cope with stress, anxiety, panic attacks, PTSD, depression and even bullying. They are popular with college students, abuse victims and veterans who suffer greatly because of stressors in their lives. The animals are meant to bring psychiatric comfort simply by being present. Patients are required by law to receive pet fee waivers on housing and flights because there is a medical need.

Service Animals vs. Emotional Support Animals

Though they fill similar roles, service and emotional support animals are very different and abide by different standards. Service animals are recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) under federal law and must be highly trained—usually for two years—in performing tasks and work to benefit an individual with a disability. For example, seeing-eye dogs help those with vision impairments function on a daily basis. They may be in public without causing any disruption or danger and are always under control. Service animals are vital to giving people with disabilities a way to live independently and with dignity.

Emotional support animals do help people go about their daily lives in a more peaceful fashion; however, they are not trained or recognized by the ADA and are frequently pets that have been certified or presented with a letter by a therapist. They are often confused with service animals and are surrounded by misconceptions.

Because of ESA’s bad reputation, owners of service animals are increasingly questioned about the validity of their own animals, causing frustration and confusion. What’s more, virtually anyone can purchase a fake service animal vest and carry false credentials, further increasing the misunderstanding. But, according to Mercury News, some states have begun to crack down on the frauds. California threatens a $1,000 fine and up to six months in prison for each instance of pets as phony service animals.

Benefits of Emotional Support Animals

The ease with which to certify an emotional support animal can be a blessing for those with undiagnosed or overlooked disabilities and mental illnesses. Individuals may rely on their pets to help them socially engage, overcome airplane flights and combat loneliness. In an article in The Guardian, several advocates explained how their emotional support animals have greatly improved their quality of life. Some said that having an animal to care for gave them a way to focus on something other than their own anxiety and even a reason to live.

A 2015 study published in Frontiers in Psychology confirmed benefits included social facilitation and increased oxytocin levels for their test group—a combination of PTSD victims, child abuse survivors, veterans and people with autism and dementia. The study found that, at the very least, animal-assisted therapy was beneficial in the short term (while a patient was in therapy with an animal) and complemented other forms of therapy.

Downsides of Emotional Support Animals

Many scientists claim that there is no backing for emotional support animals’ effects other than making people happy, while Psychology Today suggests that they may actually prolong a patient’s psychological problems by enabling their behavior. Counseling Today raises the issue that some pets may not be cut out for the job and become stressed themselves.

More frequently, the argument concerns the rest of the world: some people are allergic or afraid of certain animals that may be confined yet unleashed in a small setting like an airplane cabin. Those with service animals are especially concerned about the safety of their own docile animals when confronted with unruly and untrained support animals.

Should Therapists Issue Emotional Support Animal Letters?

Therapists can be put in a tight spot when a patient asks for a support animal and must question whether an animal is the right solution or a hindrance to their progress. Some therapists sign the letter without even seeing the animal or how it interacts with the patient, making it impossible to know if it’s a good idea. Finally, if an aggressive incident ends up in court, a therapist may find themselves ignorant of the pet’s viability and unable to defend their actions. 

Rising Regulations

Because there are few rules regarding emotional support animals or standards for evaluating who needs one and which animals are suitable, it is difficult to create laws around them. Anyone who wants one may simply ask their therapist for a letter recommending them for an emotional support animal or go online for certification.

Since it’s so easy to certify a support animal, several people are seeking it out as an alternative to pet accommodation waivers; however, without proper training or registration, it’s hard to determine how an animal will act in public, around other people, in a confined space and outside of a kennel.

To deal with other emotional support animal issues, more regulations are being drafted to ensure the best for the community. Therapists are encouraging those desiring support animals to put their pets through temperament evaluations and institutions like universities are following up with students’ medical providers to ensure students are in actual need of their animals. Though there are some suggestions for creating a registry of service animals, people with disabilities are more concerned with the possibilities for discrimination.

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