Emotional Support Animals

As pet owners, we know how much fun and unconditional love our furry family members can bring us.

The physical and mental health benefits of caring for a pet have long been recognized, including lowered blood pressure and cholesterol levels and increased levels of serotonin and dopamine. As mental health issues are increasingly recognized, and treatment options are better understood, more and more people are using ESAs, Emotional Support Animals.

It’s easy to see how caring for a pet can help someone with a mental health issue: providing companionship, easing anxiety through sensory stress relief, bringing structure and routine to their lives, stimulating exercise, and more. Those of us who are neurotypical or have high-functioning mental health issues experience these health benefits as well and can see the appeal of taking our beloved pets everywhere with us. This has led to many people, who don’t fully understand what an ESA entails, ordering service dog vests and certificates online. While this may seem harmless, and even beneficial for the owners, it’s contributing to public misconceptions about ESAs and causing major problems for people with disabilities who use certified Assistance Dogs.

In order to certify a pet as an ESA, a licensed mental health professional, from whom you are receiving treatment, must write you a “prescription” letter. There are many websites that claim to offer legitimate ESA registrations, but in actuality are scammers trying to take advantage of unsuspecting animal lovers. Beware of low costs, instant approval, and registration services. There is no official ESA registry, and nobody can buy a registered ESA. While ESAs do not have to be as highly trained as certified Assistance Dogs, they are selected for certain qualities, such as even temperament, and need proper training to perform their duties effectively. Obedience training and careful socialization is a must, and additional training, such as DPT, Deep Pressure Therapy, is common.

When people who don’t qualify for an ESA knowingly or unknowingly pass off unsuitable animals as legitimate ESAs, they interfere with the public’s understanding of ESAs and certified Assistance Dogs. There have been recent incidents where restaurants and other businesses, frustrated by poorly-behaved, barking “ESA’s,” have established blanket no-pet policies that have resulted in the illegal denial of entry to Assistance Dogs. People with disabilities report an increase in people interfering with Assistance Dogs on duty. Well-meaning bystanders assume this behaviour is appropriate because they have been approached by dogs in fake ESA vests, or have been encouraged by people passing off their pets as ESAs to pet and otherwise interact with their dogs. They don’t realize that it is forbidden, and can be dangerous, to distract an Assistance Dog from its responsibilities.

While the urge to take our pets everywhere we go is understandable, we can’t do so at the expense of people with legitimate ESAs and certified Assistance Dogs. There is a difference between feeling happier when you have your pet with you, and being incapable of leaving the house without him or her. If you believe you qualify for an ESA, talk to your licensed mental health care provider and educate yourself about breed temperaments and appropriate training. By ensuring we’re responsible pet owners, we keep public spaces safe for people with disabilities and serious mental health issues.

Written by: Rachael Deska, Veterinary Assistant