What is an emotional support animal? It depends on who you ask. An emotional support animal offers some type of benefit to a person with a disability. It will supply companionship when you’re feeling alone and isolated, or provide support during emotional crises. An emotional support animal does not require any specialized training, like a service dog or a therapy animal, both of which require intensive schooling to perform certain tasks and engage in certain, specific behaviors, such as a Seeing Eye Dog or a Police dog trained to sniff out illegal substances. Unlike therapy or service animals which also require their handler/owner to be trained to give direction, support and control to the animal, the owner of an emotional support animal is not required to have training in cueing their pet. What qualifies as an Emotional Support Animal (ESA)? Currently, as certification is not regulated, it doesn’t matter what species or breed your pet is: dogs, cats, pigs, birds, iguanas, and even emus, it can be registered as an ESA.
Emotional Support Animals are currently not required to be specially trained and it’s not uncommon for someone with a pet, receiving mental health services, to request that their animal be certified as an emotional support animal. However, there is no certification process. Do a Google search; there are hundreds of websites willing to register and certify your pet as an ESA. Many of the more reputable pet organizations have issued statements on ESA minimum requirements, specifically behavior training. Pet Partners.org, an organization which promotes the benefits of animal assisted therapy, education and activities, outlines best practice among mental health providers which recommends ongoing oversight of the “implementation and efficacy of the chosen therapeutic practice, collaborating with other professionals as needed to ensure that the working relationship between client and ESA is informed by mental health and animal behavior expertise.”
USServiceAnimals.org requires that a consultation between the patient and clinical professional satisfies all state requirements for establishing a client/patient relationship, including a minimum of two sessions, prior to determining whether or not their client, after thorough assessment, meets criteria to support the necessity of an emotional support animal. The professional must also set the expectation of ongoing treatments requiring a therapeutic relationship. With ethical professionals, this would mean that clients would have to establish a long-term relationship in which empirically supported techniques implemented by the clinician were not showing effectiveness. In other words, a clinician would not immediately authorize an emotional support animal as a first step in therapy, not before utilizing research supported techniques.
Currently, the US Government does not have any restrictions or federal requirements for defining or limiting animals as emotional support. However, all agencies do require that the person registering an animal has a clinical diagnosis from a licensed mental health professional in their state requiring clinical visits, not just a phone call with a quick assessment. The client must participate in therapy for the professional to determine whether or not their client would benefit from the emotional support of their pet.
A person with an Emotional Support Animal (ESA) is protected under the federal Fair Housing Act even in areas with “no pet” policies. Also, the Air Carrier Access Act prohibits discrimination in airline service toward people with disabilities. The Department of Transportation requires documentation no older than a year from a Mental Health Provider stating the carrier of the letter has a disability as described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th ed. (DSM-5) which requires an ESA for travel. Some airlines may restrict the size of animal and may require additional forms be completed 48 hours prior to travel.
From a provider perspective, the APA has issued a statement regarding ESA’s and encourages professionals to work within their competency. “While psychologists’ scope of practice allows for psychological assessment and a DSM-5 diagnosis, it does not include the assessment of human-animal interaction/bond or animal behavior”. Understanding the differences between an ESA, a therapy dog and a service animal and a thorough knowledge and comprehending the policies surrounding ESA’s at a local, state and federal levels in a thorough manner puts professionals at risk of operating outside their scope of competency unless they undergo specific training (Emotional Support Animal Position Statement – Human-Animal Interaction [apa-hai.org]). Ensuring the welfare of the client is the therapist’s main responsibility however a consideration must be made to ensure the welfare of the emotional support animal as well the public exposed to the ESA.
There are risks and benefits to owning an emotional support animal and several considerations to keep in mind. An ESA is an animal and taking it into public spheres can open you up to liability even with a medical letter supporting your condition. Consider having your pet trained and socialized. If you suffer from stress and your pet bites someone because they are anxious in an unusual environment, you can bet your anxiety will increase significantly. As the owner, you are responsible for your pet’s behavior so investing some time into ensuring the animal is not a danger to others is necessary.
It’s best to familiarize yourself with laws and limitations of Emotional Support Animals in the city and state in which you live. In Illinois, ESA’s are permitted in the work place but are restricted to the same licensure and liabilities of non-ESA’s. Check out Emotional Support Animal Laws In Illinois 2020 – EmotionalSupport.Pet for additional information. (https://emotionalsupport.pet/emotional-support-animal-laws-in-illinois-2020/)
Ann Hogan, MSCP, LCPC
Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor