The "Emotional Support" Blog

Jun 29, 2018

The "Emotional Support" Blog

Emotional support animals are all the rage right now. It seems as though everyone has one. But technically... there's really no such thing.

First, let's distinguish the difference between an "emotional support animal" and a service animal.

Service Dogs
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, actual service dogs must be trained to perform a task. And yes, they can only be dogs -- no other species are currently protected under the ADA as service animals (except for miniature horses under specific circumstances.) A service animal undergoes highly specialized training to perform a task for a person with some sort of disability, be it physical or mental. Examples of this could be:

  • fetching medications or reminding their owner to take medication
  • detecting impending seizures and alerting the victim before they happen
  • seeing-eye dogs for the visually impaired

Simply "being there" is not enough. Businesses and authorities may not ask a person what their disability is, but they are permitted by law to ask what task the animal performs for them.

Another consideration is that the training most true service animals go through is long, intense, and expensive. Many dogs must leave their families and be trained at a specific facility for months at a time, as is the case with seeing eye dogs at The Seeing Eye. There are plenty of “trainers” and “certification classes” just one Google search away that would be glad to take a few hundred dollars from you and send you a fancy certificate & vest in the mail.

Emotional Support Animals
In contrast, "emotional support animals" receive no training whatsoever and are only there as a "comfort" to their owner. So basically, emotional support animals are... pets.

All pets can be "emotional support" animals. All companion animals provide comfort to their owner. There is no difference between a pet dog, and an emotional support dog. Or a pet cat vs. emotional support cat. Or a pet sugar glider vs. an emotional support sugar glider. The title comes only from the person's circumstance, not the animal's. Many people claim to have disorders such as anxiety or PTSD and that their "emotional support" animals are helpful to them. While this may be true, their pet is not comforting to them because they have been trained in any way. They provide comfort simply because they are a pet. Domestic dogs and cats inherently provide stress relief and comfort to their people by their very nature. The American Heart Association’s statement on pet ownership relating to cardiovascular health loosely confirm these benefits. Pets don't need the overused title of "emotional support" animal just to provide comfort and companionship to their person. 

We often get requests here at the VHS from people wanting to adopt animals that would be good potential "service” or “emotional support" animals. But the VHS does not provide evaluations beyond basic temperament. Those questions are best answered by a behaviorist or veterinarian. There are no guarantees when adopting or buying any animal that they will turn out to be a successful, trainable service pet. More and more, news reports are coming out about preposterous species of "emotional support" animals, i.e. wildlife, that most likely do not want to emotionally support anyone in any way. For example, this peacock.

We also see many people who utilize the title of “emotional support” or “assistance” animal in order to keep their pet with them while flying on airplanes or when seeking housing. The Fair Housing Act ensures that “assistance” animals are allowed in almost any type of housing, even if there is a no-pet policy in place, as long as it does not create undue hardship on other tenants. It even prohibits charging fees for “assistance” animals, apart from security deposits. A more concise summary of the legislation from the Humane Society of the United States can be found here.

But all it takes to take advantage of this is a doctor or therapist’s written release stating that you have an emotional disability and that the pet directly helps you cope with the symptoms of that disability. The fact that “emotional support” animals are becoming a “trend” and a scapegoat may end up creating much more of a headache for those with true trained service or assistance animals. They may find it harder to be taken seriously in the coming years.

Rick Paul with Southwestern Behavioral in Evansville says that they have not seen a particular uptick in requests for emotional support animals recently. But, they also don't have a policy or procedure in place for this issue. It's up to each individual prescriber whether or not to recommend that a patient get or keep a pet for health reasons. Mr. Paul said Southwestern has provided these types of recommendations to landlords in writing before, and they recognize that sometimes people's pets are the closest [companion] they have.

The Solution: More Pet-Friendly Policies in General
The VHS strongly believes that animals (particularly dogs) should be included in more day-to-day aspects of life. This trend sheds some light on the solution to a big problem that animals face today! More public locations such as retail stores, restaurants, and hotels & attractions should be pet-friendly. There is also huge shortage of dog-friendly housing for larger breeds, including right here in the Evansville area, which is an entirely separate issue that needs to be addressed. (In fact, there are zero major apartment complexes who allow pitbull-type dogs without having that Golden Ticket “assistance animal” doctor’s release.)

But dogs shouldn’t need the title of "emotional support” or “assistance” animal to deserve a home or a place in our community. Let's just agree that all friendly & healthy dogs should be welcome in public spaces and rental housing! E is for Everyone!