Emotional Support Animals, Have We Gone Too Far?
In today’s day and age we have many ailments and many treatment protocols. One type of treatment we use for various ailments is having a companion. As humans we can have our spirits lifted or completely drained based off of how we form outside relationships. These relationships do not always have to be strictly with other humans, but any form of animal can create a bond that gives life meaning. Animals should always be regarded as more than just a tool to make us feel better though, considering they are living, breathing, functioning beings that deserve life just as much as we humans do.
There are many different forms of companion animals. One can simply purchase (but please adopt don’t shop) or rescue a dog with the intent of having an animal for a companion- but when you start to discuss medical needs and companion animals, it is broken down into three types of categories.
The first category of companion animals is Service Dogs. This is the most common type of companion animal when discussing medical needs, as it is the only form of companion animal that is completely protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). The ADA states that it allows people with disabilities to bring their service animal into public places. What qualifies a canine as a “Service Dog” is it’s specific training. A service dog by definition is a trained dog that aids and assists a specific individual suffering from disabilities such as visual impairment, mobility impairment, seizures, hearing impairment, PTSD and diabetes.
The second category of companion animals is Therapy Animals, more specifically Therapy Dogs. These animals will travel with their owners to hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and other places to provide therapeutic relief to those who may be struggling day to day. This differs from the other categories of service animals as the animal does not provide support for a specific individual, yet many individuals on different levels. This is not a category for only dogs, but most of the animals certified on this level are canines or felines.
The third category of companion animals is Emotional Support Animals. Emotional Support Animals (ESA) are not restricted to strictly dogs; many other animal species qualify for this status. What qualifies the animal as an ESA is that there is a medical professional who has deemed a specific animal appropriate support for a specific individual, to assist with their mental or emotional disability. The sole purpose of these animals is to provide the Patient with relief in difficult times.
There are many layers to the breakdown of the three main categories behind service companion animals. It does not solely focus on the species, but also the training and the diagnosis from a medical professional.
Other laws that come to protect these animals and their handlers are the FHAA (Federal Fair Housing Amendments Act) and the Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. These laws concentrate on not allowing landlords to discriminate against disabled persons in housing. People with a disability may request a reasonable accommodation such as a waiver of a “no pets policy.” While the ADA completely covers Service Dogs as it extends protections only to dogs that have been individually trained to preform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability; these other laws help to impact discrimination positively on Therapy Animals and Emotional Support Animals.
So lets dive into why these categories are important to understand. There is much controversy on the newer listed service animals as some feel that the public is going overboard. Why this controversy began stems back to the main purpose of the need for the animal and the fact that ESA’s do not require any specific training.
Emotional Support Animals as listed by the ADA provide comfort, companionship and relief for their owners in the accomplishment of one or more major life activities. The ADA defines a major life activity as- including but not limited too -caring for ones self, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working. While those are some major life activities that qualify, the diagnosis’ found to have the greatest success rate in using ESA’s were anxiety, depression, PTSD, and insomnia.
Because there are many findings of linked success in the use of these animals, the population of them in our society has seemed to skyrocket. We now have protection under the law’s listed prior for these Emotional Support Animals to also be allowed in college dormitories and residence halls. As well as having modified pet policies under the Air Carrier Access Act to permit a person with a disability to travel with a prescribed emotional support animal as long as they have appropriate documentation and the animal is not a danger to others or will not interfere with others. How this act differs for Emotional Support Animals and Service Animals is that airlines may require the written documentation for the ESA while not the same is true for the Service Animal.
So since we’ve talked definition, law, and facts- lets get to the opinions.
Before even getting into the ethics of keeping and using ESA’s, let’s talk about the fact that many people are abusing the system. As it turns out it is extremely easy to order a service animal vest and print off fake documentation and credentials online. Some people who WANT and not NEED to bring an ESA or Service Animal into a public place are simply equipping their pets with fake vests or bringing along fake documents. It is against the law for an establishment to ask a person’s disability, but they can ask for the documentation on an animal. Many simply don’t. Why is this an issue? There are many people who rely on their service animals to survive and maintain quality of life. Regardless on where you stand ethically regarding the use of animals in the service field, it’s a fact. The non-trained fake service animal can cause serious injury and havoc to those with true service animals.
The training required for animals to appropriately intermingle in our society in public places is crucial. Animals, much like humans, can be completely unpredictable. Even the best trained dog can have an off day and get spooked into what we see as poor behavior, but is honestly their instinctual nature protecting themselves.
Domesticating animals dates further back than I can find documentation on I’m sure. Mainly because the English language might not have existed but humans and animals still coexisted. Domestication at the end of the day is a perception of trust and security. Its learned behavior, repetitive routine, and feelings of love. But just because we have domesticated an animal does not mean it is appropriate to intermingle with every part of the world. The stress and anxiety the animal may feel in turn that we may not be able to properly assess or understand leaves such a large gap for variables in behavior.
An animal without solid training to assist in public places is believed by some to be a recipe for disaster. While others believe the assistance they are providing is great enough that they can weather the interactions and brave the public's unknowns.
We believe it is important to always remember where animals come from and just how complex and necessary they are to this world. To not take advantage of the awesome rights formed to protect those who truly find the safest ways to utilize companion animals. We believe animals are smarter than we give them credit for but more emotional than we realize. Its important to understand they are living beings, and while the law may view them as property- being their handler really makes us in charge of keeping them protected, whether that be at home under your own roof or out in public places on the go. Your animals are your companions, your friends, and your confidants. That is how we view the importance of their impact on our lives at least.
We would love to hear more about your views and standpoints on the different categories of companion animals and open the floor to discuss the feelings you may have about Emotional Support Animals!
Happy Tails Farm Sanctuary is located near Kingston, Ontario Canada and is home to more than 70 farm and domestic animals. As a registered charity Happy Tails Farm Sanctuary stands on 3 pillars; love for all animals regardless of species and offering rehabilitation and sanctuary, education and community involvement.