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What Happens When Veterinarians are asked to Certify Emotional Support Animals?

By Dr. Patty Khuly

Emotional Support Animal

Over the past couple of years I’ve noticed a precipitous uptick in the numbers of clients who ask me if I can write them a letter stating that their pets are required for emotional support. In most cases it’s for travel purposes, but I’ve had at least a few requests for letters to allow their pets to live with them in otherwise pet-free housing.

Trouble is, much though I may care about them personally, the state of their emotions is in no way in my professional wheelhouse –– legally speaking, anyway. It’s absolutely not my place to write a letter certifying that anyone requires the emotional support of a pet to travel or reside with them.

Still, I get it. They want something official that says their pet is a necessary part of their emotional lives –– enough so that they can’t travel or live without them. Specifically, what they’re looking for is emotional support animal (ESA) designation for their pet (usually a dog). Here’s how it works:

If you’re under the care of a health professional for your mental health and you require an animal for emotional support when you travel or in a living situation, you can have them write you a simple letter stating that you require this animal for emotional support. And…

Voilá! You can now travel with your emotional support animal in the cabin of an airplane. But that doesn’t mean your pet will now be a “service animal” entitled to unfettered access to all non-pet places, everywhere. According to Federal law, ESAs are only guaranteed access to airline travel and housing.

It’s confusing, I know. Here are a few points by way of clarification: • Service animals are dogs who have been specifically trained to perform tasks directly related to a person’s disability. They do not have to be registered. They’re granted access to any location. They can ask only two questions in challenge: “Is he required because of a disability?” and “What task does he perform?”

  • Emotional support animal handlers must present a mental health care provider’s letter, if asked.
  • Buying a “registration kit” online is useless.
  • In the US, there are three Federal laws that apply to service dogs and ESAs: the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Fair Housing Act (FHA), and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA).
  • The ADA ensures that service animals be granted access anywhere the disabled persons who rely on them might need them. ESAs are not under its jurisdiction.
  • The FHA allows service animals and ESAs to live with their people, regardless of any community or landlord restrictions.
  • The ACAA allows service animals and ESAs to fly with their people.

But here’s the thing: Given that plenty of people are obviously stretching the truth (if not outright lying about their emotional reliance on a pet during travel), are these regulations fair to those who may be put at risk by pets who aren’t trained or otherwise certified to behave a certain way in public?  

It’s a great question, and one I’ll let you decide for yourself.

One last point:

Veterinarians are NOT considered mental health professionals (much though it may seem that we are, given how often we address emotional issues). Consequently, we are not able to write these letters. And thank heavens for that! Because, as you probably suspect, it’s considered illegal for anyone to misrepresent their need for an emotional support animal. I wouldn’t want to be on the hook for that kind of decision, would you?

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