What you should know about emotional support animals

And how you can help your clients find out where they can register their pet as an emotional support animal

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After qualifying to travel with an emotional support animal, a 45-year-old woman telephoned Joanne Williams, LCSW, of Next Generation Psychology, which performs emotional support animal evaluations, saying, “You’ve changed my life. Who knew that my cat could enable me to have a new life?”

Veterinarians see pet owners all day every day and know very well how valuable companion animals can be. Most veterinarians have their own companion animal and experience, first hand, the pleasure — and comfort — provided by their pet.

For some veterinary clients, the pet is more than a companion. The animal is a source of emotional support. A growing amount of research is emerging related to the human-animal bond, animal-assisted therapy (AAT) and emotional support animals (ESA) that validates what veterinarians and many pet owners know. Pet Partners, a nonprofit that provides animal-assisted interactions to hospitals, nursing homes, veterans’ centers and much more, has emerged as one of the advocates and lists research on its website. Animals that provide assistance can fall into three categories: Service Animals, Therapy Animals and Emotional Support Animals.

Regarding emotional support animals, legislation has emerged that provides rights to individuals suffering from any variety of psychological disorders. One piece of legislation addresses the right of pet owners to have their companion animals with them when traveling by air. A second allows them to have the pet with them when moving into “no pet” housing.

Also emerging is a new service by licensed mental health professionals to assist pet owners in qualifying to have their companion animal with them. I learned about this from Williams, who, with a Master’s Degree from Boston University and after twenty-five years of private practice, is now devoting her time to assisting pet owners who qualify to register their pets for emotional support. Like other mental health professionals, she is able to determine that the presence of their animals is an essential part of the owners’ treatment in facilitating normal day-to-day functioning.

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This means that an evaluation finds that the presence of the clients’ pet benefits them.  The benefits might include calming and relaxing, lowering anxiety, normalizing heart rate and blood pressure, reducing pain, reducing stress, reducing depression and increasing pleasure, enhancing social engagement and interaction, or alleviating loneliness.

How Veterinarians Can Help

Veterinary clients look to their veterinarians for excellent medical care for their pets and for other services, too; e.g., grooming, boarding, behavior counseling, etc. Referring clients to a clinical professional who can evaluate disabled owners and enable them to register emotional support animals can be an additional service. Many times veterinarians know whom, among their clients, is experiencing anxiety or who has a relative who won’t visit because they can’t be separated from their animals. Referring them for evaluation may be a service for which they will grateful.

The legislation that makes this possible is as follows:

Air Carrier Access Act: This act prohibits commercial airlines from discriminating against passengers with disabilities. This means that if a passenger seeks to travel with an animal that is used as an emotional support animal, the airline must provide reasonable accommodation for the animal and can request a letter from a licensed mental health professional asserting that the passenger has a mental or emotional disability recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

To illustrate how aware the airlines are of this law, Williams reports that American and United Airlines each have a form of their own which is used, in addition to the letter required from the mental health professional.  She also reports that 15 airports recognize the calming effect of animals and have staff members walking around the airport letting people pet their dogs.

Fair Housing Act: Under this act, landlords are legally required to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies and practices to enable disabled persons equal opportunity to use and enjoy a residential dwelling, which may mean the waiver of any “no pets” rules.

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Official guidance issued by HUD (Housing and Urban Development) defines the “service animal” as any animal trained to work for the benefit of an individual with a disability.  The “emotional support animal,” on the other hand, is an untrained companion animal. It should be noted that lack of precise definition has led to some confusion. Advocacy groups, such as Disability Rights California, offer clarifying publications.

Registry for ESA: Williams is one of the licensed mental health professionals that provides a diagnosis, based on DMS-5, and assessment of symptoms that affect daily functioning. Applicants provide her with a confidential history form that identifies stressful events or symptoms, such as PTSD, panic attacks, fear of flying, fear of social situations or crowds, separation anxiety, claustrophobia, poor diet, fear of leaving the house, etc. On the basis of her evaluation, she can then provide to the animal owner a letter that certifies her evaluation and assessment. The letter can then be provided to the airline or to the landlord.

Given the increase in pet ownership, it is not surprising that many professionals serving pets join veterinarians. Veterinary practices would do well to be aware of the laws and become familiar with professionals serving owners with emotional support animals.

Carolyn C. Shadle, Ph.D., is the co-owner of ICS Workplace Communication (www.veterinariancommunication.com ). Shadle was awarded her Ph.D. by the State University of New York at Buffalo in interpersonal and organizational communication and has trained managers and team members in businesses as diverse as General Mills and Oracle’s Sun Microsystems. She is a certified Myers-Briggs assessor and trained with Gordon Training International. Find her on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Pinterest.

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