Emotional support animals: Dangerous myths
Clients sometimes ask me if I can "prescribe" an Emotional Support Animal for them.
First, let me say that I believe having a pet or pets can greatly benefit anyone's mental health, and promotes the values of compassion and care. There are so many dogs that need homes, and I encourage clients who have a heart to go to the shelter and get a companion.
But there are so many harmful myths about Emotional Support Animals.
NOT TRUE (MYTHS):
1. A therapist/doctor can permanently certify an animal as an Emotional Support Animal.
2. If an animal is an Emotional Support Animal, the animal can be obtained for free.
3. Emotional Support Animals are Service Animals, and are protected by law to accompany their owners anywhere.
4. The laws concerning Emotional Support Animals are established and clear.
None of the above is true!!!
In short, yes, I can write a letter giving my information and legal standing, certifying that an animal is an Emotional Support Animal for a client under my care. This has to be a commonly owned animal like a dog--not a snake, for instance. This letter from me may entitle the Emotional Support Animal and owner to certain very limited legal rights. BUT...
An Emotional Support Animal is defined by law as being an animal that is specifically part of a mental health professional's treatment plan for a client. That means that I have to determine that having such an animal is a necessary (or critically important) part of your healing process. That said, it is incredibly uncommon that an animal is absolutely needed for someone's mental health treatment. In writing a letter stating that an individual needs an Emotional Support Animal, I am putting my license on the line. See what happened to this therapist:
And, a therapist's letter stating that an animal is an Emotional Support Animal is ONLY valid if the owner is currently under the regular care of the therapist--in other words, part of an ongoing, specific treatment plan.
Check out the real laws in the picture below:
Notice that Emotional Support Animals are pretty much limited to being exceptions to no-pets policies at apartment complexes. They are NOT considered Service Animals or Therapy Animals, and do NOT have the same protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Just read the following:
"Titles II and III of the ADA make it clear that Service Animals are allowed in public facilities and accommodations. While Emotional Support Animals or Comfort Animals are often used as part of a medical treatment plan as therapy animals, they are NOT considered Service Animals under the ADA. […] Indeed, the ADA does not contemplate the use of animals other than those meeting the definition of 'service animal.'" [click here for source]
Unfortunately, the myths I named are still prevalent, with people believing that an Emotional Support Animal has some sort of permanent "certification," or gives them special rights and privileges like a Service Animal does.
People make money off of these myths. They want to fool you into paying them. You can see two examples below (click on the links).
The second one seems very official, doesn't it? It makes it seem like your animal can be added to a "registry" of support animals! But remember, as I noted above, not only is an Emotional Support Animal not a Service Animal (there is no similar registry), you have to be currently and regularly seeing the therapist writing the letter saying that the animal is an Emotional Support Animal. Otherwise the animal is not part of an ongoing treatment plan, and cannot be an Emotional Support Animal. That means that the websites are totally fake!
See what happened to when this woman fell for the scam (click the link below):
But the understanding of the law is not always clear. For instance, currently, Emotional Support Animals, with proof, can ride on airplanes, even though the law states (as quoted above) that airlines don't have to do this.
But this is all going away very soon due to people who are taking advantage of this permission, likely because the airline fell for a fake certification and was afraid of being sued under ADA laws (which as stated do not apply). Read the following recent horror stories. Airlines won't be allowing this much longer!
Someone could say that a few "bad apples" are spoiling it for the vast majority of honest Emotional Support Animal owners. But the fact is, without years of intensive training (such as the training real Service Animals and Therapy Animals receive), dogs and other animals do unpredictable things. It's not the dog's fault. Really, it's the airline's fault for allowing an untrained animal into a frightening new environment, closed off and loud, full of strangers.
So if you are seeking an Emotional Support Animal, the most important question I would ask is, why do you need that name simply to get an animal for companionship or comfort? Why not just go to the pound and rescue an animal? Legally, as shown above, all a letter I write does, is allow you to have an animal in a residence where the owner doesn't allow animals, and then only for as long as you are under my direct and regular care. And the animal has to be a documented and essential part of a treatment plan which I record with dates of service/appointments.
Remember also, animals are not just there to make us feel better--we also have to care for them. If you feel like an animal companion would help your mental health, as I said, I am all for it. But do you have the money for vet bills? For nutritious food and essential exercise? Time to give the animal attention so the animal doesn't get a mental disorder from neglect?
So be advised--Emotional Support Animals are NOT a registered class of legally recognized Service Animal, and they don't give you special rights. And if anyone is "issuing licenses," or you aren't seeing the therapist who designated the animal for emotional support, you could be at legal risk!
But have I ever designated an animal as an Emotional Support Animal? Sure! The picture at the top of this blog entry is of little guy named Fred, who is the faithful companion of a client under my care who has terrible PTSD and lives alone. My letter allows the client, so long as he is under my care, to have a dog at an apartment complex that doesn't allow pets. The client has benefited greatly, and actually sought out a shelter dog that looked like he'd lived as rough a life as possible! This client, even though he is on a fixed income, has spent good money taking care of Fred's heart problems, and takes him for long walks every day. Fred is the star of the neighborhood!