Setting Guidelines For The Welfare Of Emotional Support Animals
Emotional support animals – or ESAs – are animals who are meant to help people living with chronic mental health issues. Indeed, many animal advocates know that the bond between a human and their companion animal can be deeply therapeutic. In the United States, federal law recognizes the importance of ESAs, providing accommodations for air travel and housing. However, it’s not permitted to bring an ESA into public places where companion animals aren’t allowed.
By contrast, a service animal can be taken anywhere, and (unlike ESAs) are specially trained. This flexibility is really important for people with mental health problems who need the support of their ESA. Unfortunately, it also means that the system can be exploited. Some people get their companion animals certified as ESAs out of convenience rather than need. There’s no centralized registry for ESAs, but numerous websites falsely claiming to provide “official ESA certification” have popped up in recent times.
To ensure that the ESA system can continue bringing valuable benefits without being exploited, it’s important to think about guidelines and best practices. The authors of the article hope to start this conversation. Their literature review of 69 studies reflects that interacting with animals brings a suite of benefits, ranging from the social to improvements in stress and anxiety levels and physical health. Bringing a set of standard guidelines to the field would have tremendous benefits in legitimizing ESAs — and in setting limits so the system, and animals, can’t be easily abused.
Currently, the legal criteria for having an ESA are twofold. First, a person must suffer from chronic mental health problems that impact their ability to function. Second, a mental health provider must determine, based on solid knowledge of that person, that an ESA could help. The health provider then writes a letter documenting a person’s need for an ESA, and this creates the ESA status. An ESA can be a companion animal who already shares a bond with someone, or an animal adopted specifically to be an ESA. In either case, what’s important is the connection between the two individuals.
Some scholars have expressed concerns over conflicts of interest if a health provider who recommends an ESA is also involved in ongoing therapy. However, the authors here believe that a continuous conversation is necessary to ensure that the ESA designation is working well for both persons involved. For the same reason, they suggest that the letter conferring ESA status be updated every six months. The ability to flexibly adjust the treatment ensures that it’s the best course of action for all involved. The authors also emphasize that over-the-phone ESA evaluations should be frowned upon, particularly since such systems can be exploited.
As well as the well-being of the human, it’s vital to think about the animal’s well-being. The relationship must be grounded on respect. It would be deeply unfair to subject an ESA to stress and overwork. To protect ESA well-being, the article suggests adapting the Therapy Dog Bill of Rights. This document includes considerations like thinking about consent, giving the animal a good life and time off, and paying attention to their body language and boundaries.
For animal advocates, the article outlines a clear set of principles that can be used to guide our relationship with ESAs. Though we may not live with ESAs ourselves, it’s important to clarify any gray areas where animals could be used and abused.