Emotional Support Animals: Benefits, Eligibility, and Regulations
Emotional support animals (ESAs) are different from service animals because they provide therapeutic instead of physical benefits to people with disabilities. Service animals, like dogs or miniature horses, are usually trained to perform tasks and to work for people who have physical disabilities or suffer from vision loss or diabetes.
Companies like Pet Support Network allow pet owners to connect with mental health professionals for ESA recommendations. This letter determines eligibility so individuals can bypass no-pet policies of some housing accommodations.
Unfortunately, the lack of regulations surrounding this policy means universities, landlords, and airlines across the country struggle to deal with the increasing demand for ESA-related accommodation requests.
Owners, especially those who struggle with anxiety or depression, derive therapeutic benefits from being with ESAs. Petting an animal can help calm down people with anxiety, while being around one improves the lives of those with depression by giving them a sense of purpose. ESAs have calming and mood-boosting effects; even their mere presence can make an individual feel more comfortable and at ease. It also helps lower overall stress and alleviate symptoms of PTSD and other psychological disorders.
While powerful anecdotal evidence supports the therapeutic use of animals for people with disabilities, its use remains limited in terms of scientific support and is not yet considered to be an evidence-based practice.
There is no uniform policy surrounding the use of ESAs as each case depends on the specific surrounding circumstances. ESA eligibility requires individuals to get a letter from a doctor, therapist, or a mental health expert that outlines the disability or psychological problem and includes recommendations for using ESAs as an intervention strategy.
This letter ensures that landlords cannot turn individuals away on the basis of having an assistance pet. Landlords also cannot charge for additional pet deposit costs if individuals qualify for and own an ESA. These allowances are in place because governments have established that living with ESAs and service animals is a reasonable accommodation request for eligible individuals.
Potential for System Abuse
Housing directors and landlords are often ill-equipped to handle requests for ESAs due to the lack of related policies. Unfortunately, the digital era and the streamlining of the ESA process through technology increases the possibility of systemic abuse.
The rising prevalence of assistance animals also prompts growing concern and the need for new regulations in determining animal assistance eligibility. High-profile incidents of people who abuse the system can provide inaccurate, negative representations of ESAs.
Change and new policies are required at the federal level as regulation benefits not only public perception of ESAs as legitimate therapeutic interventions, but also allows housing directors to make confident decisions.
Individuals with psychological disabilities can get therapeutic benefits from having an ESA. Having to take care of a pet can provide structure, purpose, and the feeling of being needed. Regulating policies surrounding assistance animals works for both landlords and pet owners by reducing misunderstandings and ensuring that the rules are clearly defined and that potential issues are resolved.