Paw it Forward
Someone asked me the other day how he could go about getting an emotional assistance animal.
At that moment all I remembered was that it required some sort of letter from a counselor or therapist — like a “prescription,” as the current literature describes it. I was also pretty sure that landlords had to honor potential renters with service animals even if the property is listed as “no pets.”
And I was aware of the bevy of “cottage industries” that dole out fake prescription letters and bogus “service dog” vests online, all for a fee of course. But that’s all I really knew, so I did some research.
I first learned there are three categories of animals that provide special services to people. Therapy animals are personal pets who serve others by accompanying their owner to visit places like schools, nursing homes, hospitals, etc. These animals go through some training and testing to assure they have a good, friendly disposition, are well behaved and can navigate the different public environments they’ll encounter.
Since they’re legally considered pets, they don’t have special access to public places (including apartments) that aren’t pet friendly.
An emotional support animal is also a person’s pet, but they serve their owners by helping alleviate symptoms of mental health issues such as anxiety or depression. These animals don’t need special training, but their designation as a support animal does indeed come from a letter from the person’s licensed therapist or counselor.
The letter doesn’t reveal the person’s diagnosis; it simply states that their pet acts as a therapeutic tool, helping the client better deal with the activities of daily living.
These animals are not permitted to go into public places that aren’t “pet friendly;” however, under the Fair Housing Act landlords cannot discriminate against people with disabilities, and must therefore attempt to make reasonable accommodations for prospective tenants with ESAs.
A service animal is defined as “a dog, regardless of breed or type that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability, including physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other disability.” (Americans with Disabilities Act)
This includes assistance dogs for the blind and deaf, those with limited physical capabilities (paraplegics or those in wheelchairs for example,) people with PTSD, seizure disorders, heart disorders, etc. These dogs receive very special training for the tasks they perform, generally wear service dog vests, and their services and accessibility are covered under the ADA and Fair Housing Act.
As with ESA’s, landlords can’t discriminate and must try to reasonably accommodate the person and their service dog. With both types, however, if the environment is clearly not suitable or cannot be amended, the rental request may be denied.
In either case, if the animal becomes dangerous or a nuisance, the tenant may be asked to move. Landlords are prohibited from charging additional pet fees or deposits, but tenants can be charged for any damage done by their animal.
There are two questions — and only two — that are considered legal to ask a person with a service dog: “Is the service animal required because of a disability?” and “What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?”
Landlords are also permitted to ask for documentation from a health care or mental health worker if the disability is not readily apparent.
Early on, it seemed many people jumped on the ESA bandwagon so they could fly with their pets for free. Airlines honored this for a time, but then things got out of hand. Over a five-year span, Delta Airlines saw an 85 percent increase in accidents, from potty messes to bites. In January 2021, the USDOT ruled that airlines are not required to accept ESAs.
If you’re flying with any pet other than a service animal, the airline’s pet policies apply. As for the bogus certificates and vests, etc., one young college student from the University of Massachusetts feels these fraudulent documents “muddy the waters and could actually be detrimental to the integrity of true service animals.”
They can also put both pets and people in harm’s way on a variety of levels. Honesty is still the best policy, and I believe it shows the most respect for people who seriously need an animal’s help to maintain their lives.
That said, I’m sure I speak for many when I say that all of our animal companions are our personal emotional assistance animals, and I am constantly grateful to them for that. Thanks for reading! Be well.
(Colleen Dougherty’s history in animal welfare includes work in a veterinary clinic, shelters in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, and currently as a volunteer for the Valencia County Animal Shelter. She has been a speaker at the N.M. State Humane Conference on three occasions, presenting talks on caring for small mammals in the shelter setting, and compassion fatigue in animal welfare. She holds degrees in art and counseling therapy, and certificates in eco-psychology and feline massage therapy.)