Emotional support animals rise in public awareness leads to misuse


Murky regulations allow people to bend the rules in this moral gray zone.

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Do pigs fly? Those designated as an emotional support animal can-as long as they have the proper paperwork.

Emotional support animals, or ESAs, are intended to provide support to owners who have a psychological or emotional disability such as depression or anxiety and are prescribed by a therapist as part of the patient's treatment plan. ESAs are typically dogs but can be a variety of species, including pigs and rabbits, according to the National Service Animal Registry.

But without strict regulation-and with the help online services that make it easy to obtain a diagnosis of “psychological stress”-some pet owners are working the system to fly with their pet in the cabin for free or live in a rental unit that's been designated pet-free by the landlord. In fact, if you scroll through Facebook often enough, you'll likely see a comment along the lines of, “Oh, just go get one of those ESA letters and the apartment complex will have to let you have your dog. It's not a big deal.”

And this seems to be true enough. Though an ESA is different from a service animal such as a seeing eye dog and is not given the same rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504 of the Fair Housing Act does give ESAs the same rights as service animals and strongly penalizes discrimination against tenants who have these animals.

The Air Carrier Access Act also allows service animals and ESAs to fly in the cabin with regular fees waived. Within reason, of course, the animal must be well-behaved and under the pet owner's control. A search of national headlines brings up tales of potbellied pigs booted before takeoff because of unruly behavior and dogs removed under similar circumstances.

Technically, both service animals and emotional support animals must have proper documentation. However, the fines for violating ADA regulations and denying a legitimate service animal are steep-$55,000 to $75,000 for a first offense and $150,000 for a subsequent offense-so businesses and landlords are naturally reluctant to ask a lot of questions.

So for a fee of around $160 pet owners can go to one of the plethora of websites that offer the service-such as thedogtoronline.com-fill out a questionnaire that assesses need of emotional support, and receive a letter from a therapist that they can give the landlord-and get around pet bans, weight limits and breed restrictions. It also helps these pet owners breeze through TSA with their pet in tow. A quick search on Amazon turns up vests and patches available for pets designating them as support animal or service animals, with no paperwork necessary for purchase.

Sarah Wooten, DVM, is a practicing veterinarian who also owns rental property in Greeley, Colorado. While Wooten obviously is a fan of pets and the role they play in people's lives, she has encountered abuse of the ESA designation as a landlord. First of all, she says, a veterinarian cannot document a client's need for an emotional support animal-only a mental health professional can legitimately do that.

A veterinarian may also receive a letter from a landlord asking for verification of spay-neuter status or proof of vaccinations. “Your only requirement is to state whether a physical exam, routine vaccinations, deworming and spay/neuter have been done,” Wooten says. “You cannot fill out whether a client needs the ESA for a disability because you are not a healthcare provider.”

Wooten also notes that because ESAs are not ADA-designated service animals, they aren't really supposed to go wherever the owner goes-but that doesn't stop pet owners from trying to flex the rules. “A service animal such as a seeing eye dog is allowed to go wherever the person the animal is assisting goes, such as grocery stores or movie theaters,” she says. “An emotional support animal is typically limited to a person's private quarters. If they are renting a unit all by themselves, this is their whole apartment. If they are renting it with other roommates, this is typically their bedroom. The idea of an emotional support animal is to allow the person the ability to enjoy the rental unit at the same level as somebody without the disability.”

While there's no doubt that animal companionship is beneficial to humans, without strict enforcement, the window remains open for opportunistic pet owners to misuse.

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