Emotional Support and Service Animals

by | Oct 24, 2018 | News

            Animals are amazing. Not only are they adorable and fun to have around, but they are capable of so much more than we realize. Animals have been trained to perform specific services for owners with disabilities for a long time, but there has recently been an increase of pets being used for another task- providing emotional support. Animals are natural stress relievers and can be very beneficial for those individuals that suffer from depression, anxiety and panic attacks. These animals are frequently referred to as Emotional Support Animals, or ESA’s.  It is important for every pet owner to understand the difference between a Service Animal and an ESA and the laws that protect either.

            A Service Animal is defined as an animal that is trained to perform tasks, work, or provide assistance to individuals with disabilities.  These animals are trained by professional organizations and certified by companies like ‘Great Plains Assistance Dogs’ or ‘Service Dogs for America’. Examples of these animals include signal dogs for the hearing-impaired, guide dogs for the sight-impaired, seizure alert animals (which can let the owner know of impending seizures), and allergen alert animals.  Psychiatric service animals differ from ESA’s in that they are trained to help their handlers manage mental and emotional disabilities by interrupting self-harming behaviors, reminding owners to take medications, checking spaces for intruders or providing calming pressure during anxiety and panic attacks.  It is obvious why these animals must be taken so seriously, as their tasks are often life-saving.

            An Emotional Support Animal, or ESA, is an animal that is part of a treatment plan by a psychiatrist, psychologist or other medical professional. These animals are used to provide a sense of safety, companionship and comfort to those with psychiatric or emotional disabilities or conditions. These animals are not specifically trained to perform tasks, but do their good by simply being there. In order to obtain or designate a pet as an ESA, you much visit with your psychologist/psychiatrist/medical professional and they must write a letter dictating the pet as such. This letter must be updated every year to remain official. There are websites for companies, such as CertaPet, that advertise that they certify Emotional Support Animals. These documents that they charge $50-100 for are NOT official.  Unfortunately, the federal regulations governing the legal status of ESA’s are very relaxed so these companies continue taking advantage of unknowing pet owners.

            Emotional Support Animals and Service Animals are BOTH protected by the Fair Housing Amendment Act.  This allows you an equal opportunity to have your ESA or Service Animal live with you in apartments or homes that otherwise would not accept pets. The Air Carrier Access Act allows them to fly with you in the cabin of a plane without extra fees and charges. In return, you may be asked to provide verification such as a copy of the ESA letter to your landlord or submit specific forms to the airline in addition to a veterinary health certificate for flying. Any kennels brought onto a plane must meet USDA guidelines and fit under the aircraft seat unless other arrangements have been made.

            Under the North Dakota and federal laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, individuals may bring their Service Animals to all “public accommodations” including stores, businesses, motels, restaurants, theaters, schools, etc.  These establishments may not charge a fee or extra cost for this, but you would be responsible for paying for any damages your animal causes. You may, however, be asked to leave if your animal poses a direct threat to the health and safety of other customers in the facility.  The ND service animal law and ADA do NOT apply to Emotional Support Animals and these animals are not protected in public accommodations. There are some businesses, such as Petco or Petsmart, which allow pets to be brought if controlled on a leash.  Check websites like BringFido.com for businesses in your area that are pet friendly.

            Unfortunately, it has become apparent that there are individuals abusing the system and calling their pets Emotional Support Animals without providing documentation of such or obtaining a letter from a medical professional.  We all need to be aware that this can be detrimental to those who are in need of these animals.  Recently, a bill has been proposed in North Dakota that would allow apartment owners to evict renters and collect one month’s rent up to $1000 if they find fake disability or ESA documentation.  This would be the first step in protecting the rights of those who have Emotional Support Animals and have followed the laws governing them.

            Before you decide if a service animal or ESA is right for you, it is a good idea to consider the alternatives.  Animals are very beneficial but they are also expensive and require a lot of care.  The cost of initially buying or adopting the animal is not the largest cost of owning them.  Medical care such as annual vaccinations, spaying or neutering and any sick visits can easily add up to more than the initial cost of the pet.  Food, beds, toys and medications can also be costs that can catch owners off guard.

Being around animals can not only be helpful for dealing with anxiety and depression, but studies have found that they reduce blood pressure, reduce triglycerides, improve exercise habits (which improves overall well-being) and can lower your risk for heart attacks. Before buying or rescuing an animal, consider other options of getting your daily dose of animal contact. Try pet sitting for a friend or neighbor, volunteering for a local shelter or joining an animal-assisted therapy group that takes animals to local nursing homes or children’s hospitals.  These things can give you an idea of the commitment you are about to make and can provide benefits of contact with animals without the financial burden of owning one yourself.  For as many great things as these animals can do for us, we need to make sure we are taking good care of them right back.

Cassi Remboldt, LVT