Most of us are familiar with the term ‘service dog’ when used in reference to an animal that provides assistance to a person who is physically disabled. These types of animals are fairly commonplace and their status is protected by federal laws that detail requirements for which kinds of animals are eligible and what types of allowances must be made for the animal and his or her handler.
But what about an “emotional support” animal? It’s been scientifically proven (and widely accepted) that animals can have a tremendous positive effect on the emotional and mental health of their human companions.
According to a recent article featured on WebMD, a companion animal can have the following benefits for a person suffering from anxiety and depression. For example, an animal may:
- Offer opportunities for exercise (which in turn improves feelings of well-being)
- Provide companionship
- Encourage emotional intimacy
- Increase opportunities for social contact
Pet therapy as a valid treatment option
Both anxiety and depression are accepted in the mental health profession as valid health issues and medication is recognized as a reliable treatment option. Although more and more studies are showing how animals can benefit a person facing a diagnosis of depression or anxiety, alternative treatments like pet therapy are still relatively new and are not necessarily included in the average patient’s treatment plan.
The question is are there laws that protect the rights of a someone who requires the presence of an emotional support animal in order to reduce their anxiety and depressive symptoms? The answer is yes. And no.
What are the rules for having an emotional support animal?
Although the ADA’s definition is specific and limits the species of animal and the types of services it must perform as detailed on the U.S. Department of Justice website under the Americans With Disabilities Act requirements, individual state laws vary and often have a broader definition of the term, ‘service animal’ which may also include ‘emotional support’ animals. This leads to some murky waters when it comes to which animals are legally permitted to accompany their handlers to the store, a restaurant and/or onto an airplane or other mode of public transportation.
One bad apple can ruin the whole bunch…
To further complicate matters, there are people who try to take advantage of the system (and plenty of websites that capitalize on them!) simply because they want to be able to bring their furry friend along wherever they go and avoid having to pay any additional fees or subject their pet to traveling in an airplane cargo area. These ‘phonies’, if you will, have made life, and especially airline travel, more difficult for people who do have a valid diagnosis entitling them to the use of an emotional support animal.
For this reason, many airlines have amended their policies to cover protocol when it comes to emotional support animals and air travel. This quote from the United Airlines website details their policy regarding these types of companions:
“Emotional support and psychiatric assist animals are also accepted in cabin for qualified individuals with a disability if certain documentation requirements are met. Customers traveling with an emotional support or psychiatric assist animal must provide a minimum 48-hour advance notification…”
How to legally travel with an emotional support animal
If you require an emotional support animal to ease the symptoms of anxiety, depression, or another clinical disorder, there are a few things you can do to make life with your companion as hassle-free as possible:
- Obtain a signed letter/prescription from your mental health professional stating that you require an emotional support animal to bring with you when traveling. (These expire one year from the date of issue.)
- Notify the airline at least 48 hours in advance that you will be traveling with an emotional support animal and include your prescribing doctor’s contact information should they want to verify your prescription. Fill out any additional documentation that may be required by the airline.
- Keep your companion on a leash and out of the aisles when traveling by airplane.
- Make sure your emotional support animal is fully and reliably house-trained as an animal that urinates or defecates in a public area may be refused regardless of documentation.
Because of the differing federal and state laws regarding what type of companion qualifies as an emotional support animal, even someone with a valid prescription for such an animal may encounter opposition from time to time. Be prepared to respectfully handle any issues you may encounter by following the guidelines above.
If you use an emotional support animal and feel your rights have been violated by an airline or other entity, please contact my office.
248-348-7400 or 586-530-1000