Man’s best friend: Emotional support animals are “legitimate therapeutic interventions,” researchers say
03/23/2019 // Edsel Cook // Views

An emotional support animal (ESA) is any animal that is kept by a person with a disability. They may vary in species, shapes, and sizes, but they provide all kinds of therapeutic benefits for their owners.

ESAs are different from service animals. Emotional support animals can be any kind of critter, while service animals are restricted to dogs and certain miniature horses that have undergone special training to help their disabled owners with certain tasks.

Service animals can be trained to calm down people who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other serious disorders. In contrast, an ESA does not undergo any sort of special training. Instead, it achieves its therapeutic value by staying with its owner.

Experts say that these animals can improve the symptoms of anxiety, PTSD, stress and other psychological issues. ESAs can provide their owners with hope and purpose by merely being there to be petted when needed.

Scientific research on the benefits and potentials of ESAs is sparse. But there is plenty of evidence in the form of anecdotes about owners who rely on their ESAs for emotional stability.

"It is used more on a case-to-case basis depending on the specific circumstances of an individual,” said Jessy Warner-Cohen of the Long Island Jewish Medical Center. (Related: A primer on herbal aids for your pets.)

Are snakes (and other ESAs) allowed on a plane?

The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 considers ESAs to be "assistance animals." Both ESAs and service animals must be treated as "reasonable accommodation" for anyone who is looking for a place to stay.


That means a "no pets" policy cannot be used as a legal reason to reject an applicant who has an ESA and a signed letter from a doctor that confirms the person needs his or her animal. Landlords are also not allowed to charge the tenant for extra costs associated with the animal.

The Act has not set any restrictions on the breed or species of an animal that can serve as an ESA. In comparison, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) specifies dogs and mini horses as the only species allowed to be trained and categorized as service animals.

If an owner wants to bring his or her ESA or service animal aboard a plane, he or she must adhere to the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). Animals that are too big or potentially dangerous to other passengers are not allowed in the cabin.

Certain animals are also not given an automatic pass aboard an airliner. So yes, United can in fact refuse to let snakes on a plane.

Is that animal really for therapeutic support?

There has been a boom in demand for ESAs during these past few years. The surge is linked to the 2013 announcement by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that reminded landlords to assist people with disabilities, as well as the ability to get ESA letters from online sources.

There are no federal agencies that regulate registration certificates and identification cards for ESAs. That makes it easy for unscrupulous types to sell fake documentation to anyone who can afford it.

Airlines and landlords are not the only ones who are trying to get on top of the ESA boom. College campuses are figuring out how to deal with students who are bringing their ESAs with them.

Experts recommend that the federal government should set stricter regulations for ESAs. Among other benefits, these regulations could reinforce the legitimacy of these animals as means of therapy for persons with disabilities.

Sources include: [PDF]

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