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Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) take US by storm. Everyone wants one!

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Posted on December 21, 2015: A furry, feathered or scaly animal may also provide unconditional love, thereby helping one to alleviate any sorrow and despair in one’s life. In the USA, the concept of an Emotional Support Animal (ESA) is fast gaining popularity. You can take your ESA on a flight and they’re even allowed on university campuses. An ESA, also called a companion animal, provides therapeutic benefit by mitigating the symptoms of someone with a psychiatric or mental disability. They are different from service dogs as they are not specifically trained for their purpose. And even though, there’s a strict coded procedure to follow to get one, people are faking certificates to get what they want.  

Procedure

 The animal needs to be prescribed by a licensed psychiatrist or mental health professional and the mental disability must be a part of the version four or five of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

 The prescription letter should state that the patient’s mental disability limits at least one major activity in the life of the patient. These major areas of life include the following- seeing, walking, learning, working, dressing, washing etc. The specific manner in which the ESA will help you in your treatment needs to be mentioned. The letter needs to specify that without an ESA, the patient will not be able to live independently. A particular ESA needs to be prescribed for the treatment of the disorder. A person may be able to be the pet parent to multiple ESAs. However, each animal must be prescribed by the therapist.

Exploiting the loophole

If one doesn’t have a mental health therapist or if he/ she is unwilling to give a letter like that, one may avail of a registered mental health service agency which diagnoses mental illness online or on phone and accordingly provides a letter of prescription.

Animals permitted

Emotional support animals aren’t restricted just to dogs and cats, though they may be the preferred animals. Rabbits, mice, snakes, birds, hedgehogs, mini pigs, rats, ferrets etc are the permissible ESAs in the USA. These animals aren’t specifically trained for this purpose as their very presence is enough to provide emotional solace. An ESA is not like a service dog which helps the differently abled or sniff out bombs and narcotics. An ESA simply needs to be an animal which is manageable in public and doesn’t act as a threat to the health and safety of the residents of the housing society.

Discrimination disallowed

Housing societies with a ‘no pet rule’ will have to allow a pet if one provides a prescription letter from the therapist. One’s housing provider or landlord/ landlady isn’t allowed to ask personal details about a person’s disability. The landlord isn’t entitled to charge a pet fee for an ESA. If a person with an ESA animal faces discrimination by a housing society, he/ she may register a complaint.

Responsibilities

The landlord is allowed to ask for compensation if the pet causes more damage to the house than reasonable wear and tear. Also if the ESA animal is being mistreated by the pet parent, a law suit may be slapped against him and the animal may be confiscated from him/ her. College campus housing also qualifies as dwelling as per the Fair Housing Act. Therefore an ESA may be permitted to reside in a university campus along with the pet parent.

ESA on a flight

Flying, especially long distance, is stressful for most anyone. Those who have mental illnesses may find it manifold stressful. That’s why one with a mental illness can travel with their ESA in the cabin of any flight. Of course, only with relevant paper work and supporting documents. Animals like snakes and reptiles, rodents, ferrets and spiders aren’t allowed on the flight. As far as animals like pigs, miniature horses and monkeys are concerned; if the animal is too heavy or large for the cabin or is in the risk of disrupting the health and safety of the passengers, one may not be allowed to fly with him/ her. It must also be ascertained if the animal is allowed to enter the foreign country one is flying to. In a foreign airline, the only ESA allowed is a dog.

Fraud

With spurious sites mushrooming, which ‘diagnose’ and provide ESA certificates online, many pet parents without mental disabilities are faking mental illnesses to get a certificate. It saves them the hassle and cost of travelling with their pet on a flight. But exploiting the system to save a few hundred bucks is only going to make the system more regressive. And that can only adversely affect those who are in actual need of emotional support during stressful times.

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