Life & Culture

Do You need an Emotional Support Animal?

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.)

Serious Needs

“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.”

Your Thoughts?

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! 



10 responses to “Do You need an Emotional Support Animal?

  1. I saddens me to think that in 2019 people can be so ignorant. I have severe Panic and Anxiety disorder when I fly. I would not have been able to see my children and grandchildren if I didn’t have my little cairn terrier with me on the plane. In the airport she is my ESA. At all other times, she is my pet and she knows the difference. Over the past 15 yrs I have been called a lier, had agents call over the loud speaker, “ will the passenger with the emotional support dog come to the counter”, an agent take my psychiatrist’s letter and call her office to make sure I wasn’t scamming to save $75.00 and most recently, an agent on my return flight on Air Canada to MD decided that my little dog’s stroller had to be checked. Only baby strollers could be gate checked. My return flight from Toronto took 3 days because two agents were stupid. I guess They missed the class on the Air Carrier’s Access Act.
    Unfortunately, there is an online Cottage Industry selling letters, vests, etc. so scammers can avoid paying the fee. I’ve seen it many times and it infuriates me.
    I follow every rule. A yearly medical letter written by my Psychiatrist that includes my diagnosis with medical codes, her medical license number on her letterhead. My Vet examines my dog and gives me a health certificate and a current immunization record.
    My dog lays on my lap covered with her blanket and has no food or water and won’t go potty until we reach our destination. Even with all that, I still take medication before I walk into the terminal with another pill before I get on the plane.
    Part of the problem lies with the Airlines. They need to enforce their own rules and train their employees that there are passengers with disabilities that aren’t in wheelchairs or blind. Diseases of the brain, like Panic disorder are not visible. We are not faking, we are not scamming and this is not a joke.
    I will end with this…close your eyes and imagine yourself tied down on a railroad track and you can’t move. In the distance you hear the faint sound of a train. You struggle to get up but you can’t. The train is getting closer and louder and you CAN’T MOVE! You are crying and yelling and can’t breath. Your chest is tight, you’re sweating and the f**ing train whistle is getting louder.
    That’s a quick idea of what a panic attack feels like. My ESA, medication and lot’s of praying on take off and landing enables me to tolerate it. Hearing my grandchildren scream, “Grammie we missed you”. That’s the only reason I put myself through the pain. It wouldn’t happen without my little Sophie!

  2. Great work. Reading your article reminded me of the time when i had this question troubling me. I was going through a very tough time and then came my terrier. He is undoubtedly the best thing in my life. I got him an ESA letter online from MyESADoctor and have since traveled on the flight with him. Most importantly i love life now.

  3. It has been scientifically proven that the companionship which a pet offers is an incredible way to reduce many forms of mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, panic attacks, PTSD, and many more. Therefore, if you are going through any such state, having an ESA can be beneficial. To be able to be with your pet, you can apply for an ESA letter from authentic sites. My ESA Doctor is one such portal which is providing valid ESA recommendations.

    1. If you have an ESA, that’s fine. Love it at home. If you wish to go out in public, then leave the animal at home. Life isn’t always comfortable, learn to cope or stay home.

      Unless the animal is a service animal, it is selfish & inconsiderate of you to expect everyone else to accommodate your wishes.

      Service Animals are a necessity. ESA are strictly feel good. Why should other people be inconvenienced by so called ESAs in public?

      1. Julie;

        My name is Chaz Stevens and I am the founder of ESAD International. We oversee amental health clinical network offering ESA products and services. Our therapists are specially trained in human-animal counseling.

        While I am not a therapist, I have first-hand experience dealing with indivduals who are seeking our help merely to feel good. The stories we hear on a daily basis are straight from the worst horror movie ever imagined in Hollywood.

        ESAs are not allowed into the public space, they have zero rights of access (like a service animal).

        In health.

        Chaz Stevens, Founder

      2. Seriously? Stay home? Maybe you should stay home because it’s people like you who make people like us need our ESA’s! What mean ignorant people in the world! I wish I could stay home!

  4. ESAs are not simple pets or animals but much more than that. They have a complicated task to perform. They are required to do what medicines fail to do. A patient who is under continuous stress or a prolonged depression avoids the company of friends and prefers loneliness. An ESA, in its own way, enables the patient to learn why its company is important. Under such difficult situations, ESAs provide solace and help patients to recover. Their role is considered medically beneficial and prominent mental health specialists like My ESA Doctor, recommend ESAs. They also provide an ESA letter which is useful while renting an accommodation or boarding a plane.

  5. THANK YOU for bringing up a very sensitive issue which I hope will be resolved in favor of our nonhuman animals!

    I feel this is yet ANOTHER animal abuse for many reasons. Unless someone is incapacitated to do their own social and other activities, those people who want an animal to take care of their personal problems are just lazy things who have no compassion for animals. Most of them consider so called Emotional Support Animals a commodity to give them whatever they expect from the poor soul. But if they adopted some animals to give them a forever home, it would be indeed a noble act!

    I used to have a neighbor with a cat and when I saw what she did I was petrified!!! When the poor little thing put his little precious head rubbing against her feet (so much in need of love was this cat), she kicked him away from her. I felt the kick in my heart and told her “please be kind, he’s so loving, anyone would give anything to have a loving animal show it so warmly!” and she said with annoyed voice “Let him find his own love!” I broke up with this person! :-(

    Those people should take up a course, play or learn the piano or guitar, go to a gym for aerobics and swimming, sing at Karaokes, invite someone for lunch at her/his home or a thousand other things! In other words, act as a mature, intelligent individual without tormenting nonhuman animals to fill their own selfish needs!

    I rest my case . . . .

    1. A person like your former friend should never have gotten an animal! Why the hell did she? Did you ever ask her? I’ve never known or heard of a person, but I know there are many, many people who abuse their animals, horribly and it not only enrages me, but it breaks my heart! If it were me and I had a friend that did that to this precious animal, I would have reported her to PETA. I would have made an attempt to have her cat taken away from her and given to a loving home. A home with people that not only respect their animals, but who love them dearly and treat them with kindness and love. But then some people are cruel and extremely abusive to their children. This is just terrible and upsets me so!!!

      I’m not sure I understand what you mean when you say that people who feel they need or have or want an ESA expect these innocent, beautiful souls, (I’m talking about the animal) “to take care of their emotional problems,” I think that people should be tested psychologically, as they should be before bringing children into the world) to make sure that they are emotionally stable, loving and compassionate being who will not beat their children, abuse them verbally and totally neglect them. The same think for a person getting an ESA. They should be tested psychologically, for the same reasons. I have read about people who have horses, who beat them mercilessly to get them to do what THEY WANT them to do! Their is no love there, A person like that should be beaten and abused the same way (Now my own rage at these people is irrationally expressing itself).

      I agree with you that people should take care of themselves and their own problems and not expect an animal to take care of them. So, yes, take up a hobby; find a good, kind and compassionate therapist to work with, meditate to bring peace into your own life, make friends and enjoy music, dancing, concerts, whatever, the movies, you name it there are dozens of things that one can do for themselves, but the thought, the idea of your friend abusing such a loving, innocent, soul makes me both feel rage and great pain and sadness for the animal.

      But you can’t generalize, i.e., this doesn’t mean that every person is the same, that most people who need an ESA will abuse them or expect them to take care of their personal problems.


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