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Review of emotional support animal laws and why they are abused

Straight Healthcare
January 2023
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By now, most primary care providers have been asked if they are willing to sign something or write a letter stating that a patient's pet is an "emotional support animal." These requests usually come up when the patient has been caught by their landlord with a pet they aren't supposed to have or when they are trying to move into a place that doesn't allow them. Requests for these designations have become so common that an Internet search for "emotional support animal" brings up a many businesses that exist solely to provide these letters for a fee.

First, it's important to note that emotional support animals differ from service animals. Service animals are usually dogs that have been trained to perform a task for someone who is disabled; a good example is a guide dog for a blind person. Emotional support animals have no required training and are meant to "provide therapeutic emotional support to alleviate a symptom or effect of the patient's disability."

The reason emotional support animals have become a thing is that federal laws give people protections from landlords and airlines if they can document their pet is one. The housing laws are issued by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the airline regulations are determined by the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT). Major points from both laws are outlined below.

HUD housing laws for emotional support animals
  • Housing laws group emotional support animals with service animals under the term "assistance animals." The rules state that housing providers may not charge fees or deposits or require pet insurance for assistance animals. Landlords also cannot disallow an assistance animal because of its breed, size, or a no-pet policy.
  • Individuals who request emotional support animal protections must have a disability, which is defined as "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities." Landlords may request information regarding the existence of a disability and the disability-related need for the animal, but they are not entitled to know the tenant's diagnosis. Patients often want to use conditions like anxiety and depression as their "disability," and while some people do suffer greatly from these ailments, most experience them to a lesser degree and function just fine.
  • HUD states that documents from websites that charge a fee are not, by themselves, sufficient to establish a disability that requires an assistance animal; however, they go on to say, "many legitimate, licensed healthcare professionals deliver services over the Internet" and suggest that a note from a person's PCP may confirm their disability. See HUD Guidance on Assistance Animals for more.

USDOT airline laws for emotional support animals
  • Current law states that emotional support animals are no longer considered service animals, and airlines are not required to allow them. However, the law does say that airlines must treat "psychiatric service animals" like other service animals. What is a psychiatric service animal? The rules don't specify, but according to a support animal website, psychiatric service dogs "perform an incredible variety of tasks including things like providing tactile stimulation to provide comfort during periods of crisis." For only $100, your pet can be certified as having these special skills.
  • Airlines can require passengers to fill out forms that attest to the animal's training, behavior, and health (USDOT service animal form). See USDOT service animal rules for more.

Most people love their pets and have them because they bring a certain amount of joy to their lives. Whether their companionship provides some type of meaningful therapy that deserves to be protected by disability laws is a matter of debate. Unfortunately, these laws are easily exploited by people who don't want to follow landlord or airline pet policies. Abuse has become so widespread that an entire online industry has emerged to facilitate it.