If you haven’t been in a plane, on a cruise ship or at a shopping mall lately, you may not know, but Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) are booming in popularity…and controversy.
Airlines and cruise ships have boarded an increasing number of passengers with their ESAs in tow, you’ve seen them at your local mall, and colleges are seeing more students who want their ESAs with them in the dorm. With the trend has come some catastrophes, misunderstandings and truly comical moments–a peacock (recently deceased) denied airline boarding, passengers mauled and in need of stitches, a duck waddling down an airplane aisle and a pig that wreaked havoc in a college dorm, apparently thinking it was at a fraternity party.
All that led to the recent tightening up of policies by airlines and cruise ships, and to college administrators struggling to get policies in place. Most recently, Southwest Airlines announced it will limit ESA to dogs and cats only; with one ESA per passenger, on leash or in a carrier. Some attribute the increase to people ‘gaming the system” to have their pets travel with them (for free) or get around housing “no pets” policies; regulations are being suggested and discussed. (Learn more here.)
“I was so depressed, living alone, I felt I was losing everything,” says Kalley Marie Danese. She got the shock of her life when, at 17, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer—typically a condition found in much older women. Three years later, after treatment that doctors termed successful, it came back. Then a dachshund named Markie changed everything. He became her ESA, a constant companion who lifted her spirits and eased her anxiety, she says. “This isn’t a pet; it’s a tool, a necessity,” says Danese, now 26, now a healthy, a freelance writer and a fulltime college student studying psychology. (Markie has passed the baton to Shlemmy, her new ESA, an adorable pug and all three are pictured, above.) Danese says older adults, especially those who live alone, are likely to get great benefits from an ESA.
Think an ESA might be what you need? Here’s some information from Phyllis Erdman, PhD, professor in the counseling psychology program at Washington State University; she chaired a symposium on ESAs and service dogs—another breed entirely—at the recent annual meeting of the American Psychological Association.
ESAs, Service Dogs, Therapy Animals
“ESAs are fairly new,” Erdman says, increasing in popularity in the past 10 years and even more now. While pets of all types generally provide emotional support, an ESA provides the kind of support that is critical to an owner’s daily functioning, whether traveling or going about daily activities, experts say. A therapist or other mental health professional needs to decide that the animal is needed for the mental health of the person and provide a letter to that effect.
ESAs are different from service animals, Erdman stresses. “Service animals carry out a task for someone who has a disability,” she says, and are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Service animals are trained to do a specific task, such as guiding a visually-impaired person around obstacles or alerting a hearing-impaired person to an alarm. And service animals can be present every place people who own them can go, Erdman says. One type of service dog is a psychiatric service dog, trained to do specific tasks that help the owner cope with mental illness.
ESAs, however, have fewer rights than service animals. “ESA’s are not covered by ADA, because they view them as an aid, similar to a wheelchair,” Erdman says.
Different still are therapy animals, such as horses or dogs, owned by the person providing the service, such as taking dogs to retirement homes to provide companionship or providing equine therapy to special needs children, Erdman says.
In 2013, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development clarified that people with emotional support animals may request accommodation for their animal even in no-pet housing (with certain exceptions).
Thinking about an ESA? Consider these points:
- Ask: will the ESA not only be good for you but also if it will be good for the ESA, Erdman suggests. They require care, like any companion animal. Is it appropriate for your circumstances? (A Great Dane ESA in a studio apartment walkup will not be happy..and neither will you.)
- Consider: What do you expect an ESA to do for you, emotionally and practically?
- Apply: You need an official letter to certify your need. An applicant’s own therapist might seem to be an ideal evaluator, but some say it poses an ethical dilemma. “There is very little support to document that they need this kind of animal,” Erdman says, referring to the lack of published studies on the value of ESAs. Some therapists say it’s not their role to say if a patient could use an ESA, saying the decision should be made by a more objective third party.
If you are unsure, or even unsuccessful, you can always skip the ESA idea and head to the animal shelter. “Maybe all you need is a pet,” Erdman says. That in itself encourages socialization and boosts mood. “I’ve met most of the people in my neighborhood through my dog,” she says. “If I am in a bad mood, I can sit down and pet my dog and feel better.”
Share your thoughts—are ESAs a lifesaver or overrated? And if you decide you’ll get an emotional support animal (or you have one), tell us what’s behind the decision or how it’s working out. Let us know in the comments!