Emotional support animals come under scrutiny

| March 17, 2017

As the New York Times recently reported, the use of emotional support animals, such as dogs, cats, and even miniature horses, on airplanes is drawing complaints from passengers, airline staff, and others. Emotional support animals differ from service animals, such as seeing eye dogs who assist the visually impaired; emotional service animals aren’t required to undergo training, but are there to calm and support their owners. They’ve long been allowed to travel on airplanes, enter restaurants and shops, and live in buildings that otherwise prohibit pets.

Emotional support service animals are allowed only with a mental health professional’s lettered approval. They can ride on their owners’ laps, rather than stowed away beneath the seats, on airplanes — an allowance that has lately drawn many complaints. Says Marcie Davis, who uses a service dog and is founder of International Assistance Dog Week, “It’s becoming a big problem… I’ve seen people bring on pets and try to pass them off as an emotional support or service dog. It’s not appropriate and it’s not safe.”

emotional support animals

Emotional support animals don’t require the training of certain other service animals. From Pete Markham.

While seeing eye dogs are trained to not sniff other animals or people, or to bark, emotional support animals are not required to undergo any specific training in order to be certified. Davis notes that mixing such animals on planes can be a risky proposition. “I’ve had my dog attacked in multiple situations. Honestly, I understand that there’s some value that people need an emotional assistance dog. But I think a lot of this is that people love their dogs and think they feel like if you have your dog, why can’t I have mine?”

Emotional service dogs are protected under bills including the Fair Housing Act and the Air Carrier Access Act, an expansion of the American Disabilities Act that recognizes service animals in public places. Emotional service dogs fly free and are not required to be caged, while ordinary pets are subject to fees ranging from $75 to $125 per one-way flight, and must be crated or kept in a cage below their owners’ seat, depending on the animal’s size.

Animals can provide support, particularly in potentially difficult or emotionally straining situations such as air travel. Gigi Griffis, a 29-year-old writer who travels with her emotional service dog Luna, told the Times that “having Luna with me really provides a level of comfort. When I’m on the road, I am safe, no matter if I’m in Germany or Mexico.”

emotional support animals

Some people accuse pet owners of falsely claiming their animals are needed for emotional support to avoid airline fees. From Kuster & Wildhaber Photography.

Many mental health professionals are beginning to promote emotional support animal certification. The Times reports that Carla Black, a Marina del Rey, Calif. psychotherapist, advertises a $99 one-hour clinical assessment (conducted by phone or Skype) and prescription letter (valid for a year) for emotional support animal certification.

Some airline staff, such as one 30-year American Airlines flight attendant who declined to be named but called the practice “out of control,” are exasperated. That attendant remembered one emotional service dog who took up an entire seat area; she didn’t remove the dog because, reported the Times, the dog was “perfectly acceptable” where it was seated.

Critics claim that ordinary pets are being dubbed emotional service animals to skirt airline fees. But writer Griffis, who uses emotional service dog Luna, says, “Shame on anybody who abuses the system. That’s why I tell people this isn’t just about getting around airline fees. If you genuinely need this animal in your life, that’s what this is about.”

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Category: Pets

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