Why Nontraditional Emotional Support Animals Are Important to People with Disabilities

By Aastha Uprety and Katherine Pearson
March 6, 2019

From cats and dogs to lizards and alligators, all sorts of animals have been all over the news recently as “emotional support animals”. But what are emotional support animals (ESAs) anyway, and why do we keep hearing about seemingly “weird” ones? ESAs provide important benefits to people with disabilities, and nontraditional animals can provide the same comforting function to one person as a dog or cat might provide to someone else.

As news reports and general media coverage about emotional support animals multiply, many journalists have been confusing legal definitions in their reporting, often conflating assistance animals with service animals leading to inaccurate claims about ESAs. Misleading information can cause business owners, housing providers, and people with ESAs to make incorrect decisions. Misinformation can also fuel the misunderstanding of and hostility toward people who have disability-related needs for animal companionship.

People without disabilities assuming they know what’s best for people with disabilities is a common paternalistic behavior that is also part of the reason people are skeptical of ESAs. Indeed, the recent uproar against nontraditional ESAs is likely a symptom of society’s general aversion to trusting people with disabilities to make decisions for themselves.

What is an Emotional Support Animal (ESA)?

An ESA is a type of assistance animal. An assistance animal is any animal that provides benefit to somebody with a disability, such as people who have mental health diagnoses. Unlike service animals, assistance animals are not limited to being a dog or a miniature horse or required to be individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. However, they may satisfy one of those restrictions or neither of them. If an assistance animal provides general comfort and emotional support to their human companion, it is often called an emotional support animal.

Various civil rights laws exist to protect people who have a disability-related need for an animal. Under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), assistance animals are allowed as a reasonable accommodation in individual homes or housing units and common areas of multifamily housing buildings. Assistance animals are also typically allowed on airplanes under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), however, does not cover assistance animals—it only covers service animals. Therefore, ESAs and other assistance animals are not protected in public accommodations such as restaurants and other businesses.

Because ESAs are considered assistance animals under the FHA, landlords must allow tenants to keep them, given the tenant submits a reasonable accommodation request that links the need for an animal to symptoms of a disability. ESAs do not require certification or registration, but they do require verification of need from a third party such as a doctor, therapist, social worker, or someone who has knowledge of the disability. Tenants with ESAs can learn more about how to submit such a request from the ERC’s recent advice column: Can my emotional support animal live with me in a no-pets building?

Unique ESAs are valid assistance animals, too

Sometimes people are confused by the wide range of animals that can assist people with disabilities. ESAs in particular have a reputation for spanning the range of species because ESAs can be virtually any animal that helps a person with a disability. Thus, recent news reports have covered stories about animals like lizards and alligators, as well as uncommon dog breeds such as rottweilers and pit bulls, as loyal ESAs for people with disabilities. These types of animals may seem out of the ordinary to some, but the benefit they provide to their human companions is real.

People with a wide variety of mental health conditions and other disabilities, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, autism, and other conditions, rely on ESAs to decrease stress, sooth anxiety, and stabilize or uplift mood. ESAs may also help people with physical disabilities, like chronic illnesses, manage the emotional effects of their disability.

Nontraditional animals are not limited to just ESAs. Other “weird” animals that help people with disabilities include service animals like miniature horses. Under the ADA, miniature horses—as well as their more common counterparts, dogs—are the only animals that are legally allowed to be service animals and enter businesses, often referred to as public accommodations in civil rights laws. Miniature horses are typically the same size as service dogs and can help their human companions with similar tasks. In fact, there are many reasons someone might prefer a miniature horse to a dog, including allergies and religious reasons. Horses have a longer lifespan, and their uniqueness makes them more immediately recognizable as service animals, and not pets. Miniature horses, as different as they may seem, are valid service animals for people with disabilities navigating a world full of obstacles.

There are limits to ESAs: all ESAs must be housebroken, under the control of their owner, and they must not pose a direct threat to anyone else.

Threats to ESAs and the people who use them

Occasionally, a person without any disability-related need for an animal will fraudulently attempt to pass their pet off as a service or assistance animal. In reaction, many state governments have introduced legislation to criminalize such fraud. While faking that an animal is a service or assistance animal is harmful to people who do actually benefit from those kinds of animals, many disability rights organizations prefer educational outreach to criminalization. While these laws may seem helpful, this preoccupation with assistance animal fraud creates a heightened suspicion and skepticism of everybody, including people with a legitimate service or assistance animal. That’s how people with disabilities are harmed by both fakers and stringent rules.

Amid this growing fear of receiving fraudulent requests, airlines have been cracking down on passengers with ESAs. This widespread distrust of people with ESAs, if not minimized, could spread into housing and negatively impact the FHA’s protections for people with disabilities and their right to make reasonable accommodation requests. In fact, some advocates believe that the growing obsession with assistance animal fraud is a way for housing providers to avoid their legal responsibilities under the FHA.

Attacks on people who have nontraditional animals are reflective of a wider skepticism around the needs of people with mental health issues and other disabilities. “Just as you wouldn’t ask someone, ‘Does your Prozac really help you?’—you shouldn’t be arguing with someone about if their dog really does provide them with mental and emotional support,” Matt Dietz, a disability rights attorney, said to The Intercept. “The person with the disability should be the one in charge of their own health and the way they care for themselves.”

ESAs help children, veterans, and many others with mental health diagnoses and other disabilities remain independent in their daily lives. Nontraditional ESAs serve the same purpose, despite being much less common. For years, the disability community has advocated for their needs in a world full of barriers and pushback. It’s about time society trusts people with disabilities to make the best decisions for themselves.

If you believe you may have experienced discrimination in housing, you can contact the Equal Rights Center. To report your experience, please call 202-234-3062 or email info@equalrightscenter.org.

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