by David F. Kramer
Service animals are dogs or other animals that are specially trained to perform essential life tasks and assist people with physical disabilities. They can also be referred to as assistance, support, or helper animals, depending upon their use and function.
The practice of dogs and other domesticated animals to aid those with physical disabilities has most likely occurred throughout history, whether purposeful or by accident. Consider this line from Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” written in 1843, describing the personage of one Ebenezer Scrooge:
“ Even the blind men’s dogs appeared to know Scrooge; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and they would wag their tails as though they said, ‘No eye at all is better than an evil eye, Dark Master.’”
After the end of World War I, dogs began to be trained in earnest to aid those who lost their sight in that terrible conflict. In 1929, Morris Frank and Dorothy Harrison Eustis were instrumental in founding The Seeing Eye, the oldest existing guide dog school in the world, in Nashville, Tenn., and the term “seeing eye dog” was thrust into modern parlance.
Since that time, dogs and other types of service animals have been purposefully trained to aid the blind, deaf, seizure prone, and people with physical ailments of all types. The owners of these animals developed a bond that long overshadowed the usual one between a pet and its master. People looked to these animals to protect their very lives from danger as well as for emotional support and love. Perhaps it is out of this bond that the concept of the Emotional Support Animal (ESA) was born.
Support animals that deal with mental and emotional issues rather than physical ones fall into three basic categories: psychiatric service animals, therapy animals, and emotional support animals.
A psychiatric service animal is trained to aid a person who has an emotional or mental disability that gets in the way of the completion of necessary life tasks. Therapy animals are mainly to provide comfort and security, such as those animals that visit hospitals, nursing homes, and schools. An emotional support animal is “prescribed” by a mental health professional through a fairly rigorous process. A licensed therapist needs to submit a letter outlining a client’s condition as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV and DSM V).
Registering an Emotional Support Animal
There are many outlets that can help to register an emotional support animal, and as with most anything these days, this can be done online. Such resources include the ESA Registration of America, the National Service Animal Registry, the Service Dog Registration of America, Chilhowee Psychological Services, and many others.
For a fee, these organizations will help to register your animal and navigate the legal landscape that comes with it. They can also provide you with a vest and other signage that indicates a working service animal, though this is not always necessary by law. They also do a fair amount of advocacy as to where emotional support animals are allowed, even going as far as to help you lodge a complaint against a business or agency you feel has discriminated against you and your animal.
Emotional Support Animals are not limited to dogs; an ESA can be a cat, rabbit, bird, hamster, hedgehog, or almost any animal of normal size and temperament. Of course, this is all within reasonable limits. Fred, your emotional support tarantula, might face a few challenges in getting the proper credentials.
(Editor's note: There has been a good deal of controversy surrounding the business model of certifying or registering ESAs. There may not be any legal protection afforded with these certifications. We suggest buyer beware when dealing with any business that promises legal documentation for your ESA. Please practice due diligence in researching these businesses before exchanging money for credentials with them.)
Legal Protection for Service and Emotional Support Animals
The purpose of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) is to prohibit and combat discrimination in employment, state and local government activities, public and commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications. While most people associate the Act with the workplace, education, or wheelchair access to public and private buildings, it also governs the laws and rights when it comes to service animals. This includes how disabilities are determined, how service animals are certified, and where they are permitted.
However, since March 15, 2011, only dogs are recognized as service animals as part of the new set of regulations. Dogs that provide comfort and emotional support are NOT considered service animals under the Act.
The reasoning behind this is that these animals have not been trained for a specific purpose. Unfortunately, these factors lead to ESAs being classified as something only slightly above the level of a pet, so ESA owners might find themselves unable to take their animals into places and situations where conventional pets are not allowed (stores, hotels, restaurants, etc.)
Trying to get an ESA into an apartment that doesn’t allow pets will take some legal wrangling, and in the end you still might be out of luck. Sadly, the emotional distress that would come from a landlord not relaxing a “no pets” policy doesn’t hold much weight from a legal standpoint.
Even if you already have a leased apartment and suffer a trauma that causes an officially diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other condition, you may still have an uphill battle sharing your home with a companion that isn’t properly classified as a service animal. Historically, service animals for physical disabilities have had an easier go of things than those used for mental and emotional issues.
Air Travel with Your Emotional Support Animal
When it comes to traveling by air with your ESA, there’s a little more leeway, and a better chance that your animal will be allowed to accompany you on your flight.
According to the United Airlines website, trained service animals for physical disabilities are allowed on flights, and must sit directly in front of their owner’s seat without protruding into the aisle. Smaller animals can be housed in kennels, provided they meet stowage requirements (i.e., the animal carrier fits under the seat). You may not need to require official certification documents for domestic flights, but it may be needed for international travel. Any service animal, however, will need proof that it has been immunized against rabies, according to Centers for Disease Control (CDC) regulations.
The process, however, is different for emotional support animals. ESA owners will definitely need official documentation for domestic flights, and additional documents for international travel. It may also be necessary to consult the consulate of your foreign destination to check on local laws concerning service animals and ESAs.
Traveling with an emotional support animal requires 48 hours notice, and submittal of a form that must be completed by a mental health professional. Any airline is certain to follow up on your request and contact your therapist directly for clarification of your condition and your need to travel with your ESA.
For international travel, the airline recommends making arrangements four weeks in advance. Smaller ESAs might require a proper kennel, which must be able to be stowed under the seat for takeoff and landing. If an animal is well behaved, an ESA might be able to sit at your feet the way a service dog would, but chances are you won’t be able to travel with your companion on your lap.
So, people who wish to travel with ESAs will certainly need to do some legwork beforehand, and even after all is said and done, much of this will be at the discretion of the airline you choose. So, it’s obviously a good idea to hash things out well in advance of your trip.
Defining an Emotional Support Animal
Despite established laws, we live in a new world of perceived triggers, microaggressions, and other psychological buzzwords that many folks find dubious. If you ask a person on the street to define an Emotional Support Animal, they might very well imagine the Paris Hiltons of the world, toting around tiny Chihuahuas in designer handbags, taking their prized pets into places that they shouldn’t be allowed, and flouting the system simply because they can.
So, are there people “game the system” when it comes to the issue of Emotional Support Animals? The answer is most likely yes. The online organizations mentioned in this article are businesses first and foremost, and obviously go to different lengths to vet individual applicants as far as their degree of disability is concerned to make their bottom lines. A landlord, business owner, or even an airline might turn their heads and allow an improperly documented ESA to avoid being seen as unsympathetic to those with disabilities or become the target of a negative social media campaign.
The status of Emotional Support Animals is constantly in flux, and only the government and the court system will determine what the future holds for them.