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Your emotional support animal is ruining the system for those who really need it

Emotional support animals seem to be in the news constantly these days, with endless stories of people brandishing official documentation as they try to get their peacocks, turkeys, and hamsters a seat next to them on a flight. And what pet owner among us hasn’t briefly looked into getting our own animal registered as an ESA (emotional support animal), thinking it would be a pleasant (and cheaper) alternative to a pet-sitter for our next trip out of town? But these situations, and internal queries, raise real questions, like: Do animals really help people? Does that mean the animals get carte blanche to go everywhere? Are emotional support animals even legitimate?

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

“People take advantage of [ESA status] just to fly — it’s gone bad, for lack of a better word,” Rachael Silverman, a clinical psychologist in Boca Raton, Fla., tells Yahoo Lifestyle. While she feels that some people are abusing the practice, she wholeheartedly embraces the therapeutic benefits of animals.

“I prescribe emotional support animals for my patients because I believe in the healing powers of animals and the unconditional support and comfort they truly do provide,” she says.

Silverman has suggested animals for veterans with PTSD, children with anxiety disorders, people who suffer from depression, and autistic patients. For example, she recommended that an older man whose wife had recently died get a dog in order to make sure he socialized and left the house. She also helped a teenager with severe social anxiety work up the courage to talk to strangers by taking her dog to the park. She wrote a letter to allow a young girl with recently divorced parents to take her cat to her father’s no-pets-allowed apartment so she could sleep at night.

“I don’t prescribe an emotional support animal until well into the therapy,” she says. “These emotional support animals are not the treatment — they are part of the treatment for these individuals.”

That’s an important distinction because not everyone agrees on the scientific evidence that animals can help people with mental disorders. There are studies available showing that guinea pigs can help autistic children socialize. Dogs and their famous unconditional love can calm vets with PTSD, who have reported feeling less lonely and depressed after adopting a canine. Caring for an animal has also been shown to help those with long-term mental health problems or chronic pain by distracting them from symptoms and encouraging activity. But several scientists have conducted comprehensive reviews of research into animal-assisted therapy (AAT) and found that many of the studies have flaws, such as small sample sizes, not enough randomization, and inadequate controls. Usually these reviews conclude that animals are probably beneficial, but more research needs to be done to define how and for whom.

Still, Silverman knows what she’s seen in her patients, and some have gone so far as to tell her their animals give them a reason for living. It would take a lot to convince her that the impact of animals isn’t real and beneficial.

While the majority of Silverman’s patients turn to cats and dogs for this type of support, she hasn’t prescribed a specific species to the emotional support status. Does that mean peacocks can be legitimate support animals? Ecologist and evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff recently told National Geographic that they very well could be.

“I think any living creature could be an emotional support animal,” Bekoff said. “Support is just in the eyes of the beholder.”

Pet Partners, an organization that brings therapy animals (not necessarily support animals) into hospitals, assisted-living facilities, and schools, invites more than just dog and cat owners to volunteer their pets’ services. Volunteers can get their horses, birds, pigs, llamas, alpacas, rabbits, rats, and guinea pigs approved as Pet Partners as well.

But just because someone can turn to a llama for comfort does not mean they absolutely need to have it on the plane next to them. According to Silverman, that depends on the diagnosis and the trip.

As many of these much-hyped news stories have highlighted, the vague wording of fair housing laws and the Air Carrier Access Act have made it possible for people to go online and pay a fee to a service that will connect them with a therapist who will sign a letter designating their pet an emotional support animal. The services sometimes sell kits that include special vests and collars, so owners can take their dogs into other restricted areas, like subways, without cases. None of the sites offering this service make it sound like there’s a chance of getting denied this doctor’s note. This has the unfortunate effect of casting doubt on even those people who really do need their animals.

“This is a letter of disability,” says Silverman, who is in favor of stricter regulations around ESAs. “It’s a serious letter, and it needs to be taken seriously.”

While stories of flushed hamsters make some onlookers question the validity of ESAs, Silverman says some good may eventually come out of all this attention. “The one thing the media has done that’s a positive thing is bring this [subject] to light,” she said. “It’s being seen as something worth investigating more.”

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