Emotional support animals cause legal limbo

We’re accustomed to seeing people with disabilities accompanied by service animals, such as seeing-eye dogs. The Americans with Disabilities Act recognizes service animals as those trained to serve a specific disability-related function.

Lately, however, a growing number of people are asking mental health professionals to certify “emotional support animals,” which are not recognized by the ADA and have little to no specific training.

“The growing use of emotional support animals tends to discredit the use of service animals…”

Cassie Boness, a graduate student in clinical psychology in the University of Missouri’s department of psychological sciences, says these requests for certification for emotional support animals present several potential conflicts for mental health professionals.

“There are no standards for evaluating the need for an emotional support animal, whereas there are concrete rules to determine if someone is eligible for a service animal,” Boness says. “These emotional support animal letters are formal certifications of psychological disability, and the psychotherapist is stating, by writing such a letter, that the person needing the emotional support animal has such a disability and that the presence of the animal addresses that disability.”

Although emotional support animals can be pets, they are not considered pets under the law, and special accommodations must be afforded to individuals who need emotional support animals to assist them psychologically. For example, housing that prohibits pets must allow emotional support animals and waive any fees or pet deposits. The Air Carrier Access Act requires airlines to allow service animals and emotional support animals to accompany their handlers in the main cabin of an aircraft.

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“Part of the reason this is becoming problematic is that service animals are highly trained, so when they are brought into public spaces they do not cause problems,” Boness says. “But emotional support animals can be certified through an online process, and they can be someone’s pet.

“People have taken their pet pigs onto airplanes, and there have even been emotional support snakes and turkeys. The growing use of emotional support animals tends to discredit the use of service animals, which is where much of the tension comes from since people do not understand the difference.”

She says mental health professionals who certify emotional support animals also face potential legal ramifications. “The psychotherapist is stating that the person needing the emotional support animal has a disability and that the presence of the animal addresses it,” Boness says. “However, if a pet owner asks a psychologist to certify a dog as an ESA allowing the pet in the owner’s apartment—and then that pet bites a child—the psychologist might have to go to court to defend her decision if the landlord challenges it. Legally, they’d be implicated.”

For now, Boness recommends that therapeutic psychologists—those who treat patients—do not issue certifications to their patients for emotional support animals. Instead, they should refer those services to someone such as a forensic psychologist, who serves more of an administrative function (an expert witness in court, for example).

Boness is a coauthor of the study in the journal Professional Psychology: Research and Practice. She worked with Jeffrey Younggren, a forensic psychologist and clinical professor at the University of Missouri, and Jennifer Boisvert, who has a private practice in Beverly Hills, California. Boness says she and Younggren are now working to develop guidelines for mental health professionals who want to certify emotional support animals.

Source: University of Missouri

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Source: Futurity