By now almost everyone is familiar with the concept of an emotional support animal (ESA), and chances are, many of you have already encountered an ESA in a formerly “animal-free zone.” Or perhaps you or someone in your family or circle of friends has a dog, cat, bird, or other animal companion who serves as an ESA.
How ESAs Differ From Service Animals
Emotional support animals, according to the Fair Housing Act and Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), can be any species of animal, who must fulfill a disability-related need and whose use is supported by a physician, psychiatrist or mental health professional.
ESAs don’t qualify as service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Service animals are highly trained and can receive certifications as psychiatric service dogs to help people who suffer from depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), schizophrenia and other mental conditions.
Emotional support animals, on the other hand, don’t require specific training to provide assistance to someone with a psychological disability. However, they may be permitted in housing facilities that would otherwise prohibit animals, and the ACAA allows some ESAs to travel on airlines at no extra cost, often with supportive documentation required.
As you might expect, there’s growing controversy surrounding the appearance of ESAs in ever-increasing numbers in locations that have traditionally been off-limits to animals. Sadly, the backlash isn’t surprising given that more than a few people have taken advantage of the special access granted to ESAs, falsely claiming their pet is necessary for emotional support.
Researchers Propose a Standard Assessment to Certify ESAs
Recently, researchers at the University of New Mexico published an article in the journal Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, outlining the ethical challenges therapists face when asked to certify emotional support animals for their patients, and offering possible solutions to better serve both people who feel they need ESAs and those who must comply with the animals, such as landlords and airlines.1
The research team developed and is proposing a four-prong standard assessment for therapists when asked by patients to provide an ESA certificate:
- Understanding, recognizing and applying the laws regulating ESAs.
- A thorough valid assessment of the individual requesting an ESA certification.
- An assessment of the animal in question to ensure it actually performs the valid functions of an ESA.
- An assessment of the interaction between the animal and the individual to determine whether the animal’s presence has a demonstrably beneficial effect on that individual.
Assessment Will Address Whether the ESA Is Able to Do What It’s Being Asked to Do
The proposed assessment involves not just the patient, but the animal as well.
“Somebody has to certify that the animal is able to do what you’re asking it to do,” says lead article author Jeffrey Younggren, a forensic psychologist and clinical professor at the University of New Mexico’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “And there are avenues by which animals can be evaluated regarding their capacity for these kinds of experiences.”2
There’s no shortage of horror stories of encounters with emotional support animals, especially during air travel, and Younggren and his colleagues believe that implementing standardized guidelines and practices will reduce the number of incidents.
“Our research has nothing to do with service animals,” Younggren clarifies. “Seeing eye dogs and therapy dogs are animals that help individuals manage their disabilities in certain situations — but that’s not what an ESA is. An ESA is an example of a well-intended idea that has metastasized and developed into a world of nonsense.”
Proposal Answers the Need for Ethical Guidelines Around ESAs
Paper co-author Cassandra Boness, a University of Missouri Ph.D. candidate, says the proposed assessment will better align ESA certifications with professional and legal practices, while also providing guidelines for mental health therapists.
“One of our biggest goals is to disseminate this information in order to better educate mental health providers, as well as policy writers, about the need for ethical guidelines around ESAs,” Boness said.3
Importantly, mental health practitioners who aren’t knowledgeable about the law may not realize that when they write an ESA certification letter for a patient, legally it constitutes a disability determination that becomes part of the patient’s permanent medical record. Per the UNM Newsroom publication:
“Currently, in order to receive waivers for housing or travel purposes where animals are banned, the law requires patients must have a mental or emotional condition diagnosable by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
If patients are given certifications for an ESA, it means they, and the therapist signing the certification, are declaring the patient to be psychologically disabled with significant impairment in functioning.”4
The proposed assessment will require ESA certifiers to perform a comprehensive evaluation of the person requesting the certification to determine if they have a disability under the DSM-5, according to Younggren.
“That disability has to substantially interfere with the patient’s ability to function, which is what the ADA requires,” he explains. “And the presence of the animal has to ameliorate the condition, which means you have to see the person with the animal.”
If the proposal is adopted as an industry standard, it will become more difficult for individuals to receive ESA certifications, but will benefit society as a whole from a safety perspective.
The researchers are hopeful their work will spur more research on the impact of emotional support animals on patients in order to build a larger body of scientific evidence.
The important takeaway here is that no one is arguing that pets provide both physical and mental health benefits to humans — those facts are well-established and backed up with an ever-growing library of scientific studies.
The human-animal bond is real and describes the powerful, positive interaction that exists between people and animals. It’s not just about companionship — it’s about a deep connection that enhances the quality of life of both humans and animals.
The issue is that in a civilized society, it’s necessary to develop and enforce guidelines and standards that benefit the many rather than the few. It’s also important to evaluate current trends, in this case the growing use of ESAs, for potential short and long-term consequences to the animals and humans involved in these pairings, as well as society as a whole.