Abuse and Controversy
Emotional support animals can help people suffering from anxiety and other mental disorders, but a growing number of pet owners are abusing the system to travel with their pets without paying extra or live with pets in homes that otherwise have a no-pet policy.
The definition of an ESA is so loose that some people use it as a backdoor to get away with bringing their pets everywhere. And it’s not just dogs and cats. Pigs, ducks, snakes, and turkeys are making their way into airplanes, no-pet homes, and public places where pets aren’t allowed.
Airlines, landlords, and owners of hotels, restaurants, and grocery stores are growing frustrated with customers exaggerating purported disabilities for their personal advantage. Most company owners or employees don’t know their rights to question the validity of or deny ESAs. Others simply treat ESAs as equal to service dogs to avoid being blamed (or sued) for disability discrimination.
Is the proliferation of ESA’s doing more harm than good? Read more about the controversy below.
How easy is it to obtain an official ESA letter?
Most pet owners can attest to the comforting and emotionally supportive nature of their pets. But at what point can the line be drawn between “pet” and “emotional support animal?”
To present a pet as an ESA, a person with a mental illness must request a letter written by a licensed mental health practitioner attesting to the psychological benefit of the pet’s presence. The mental health professional must determine whether the companionship of the pet is necessary for the treatment of the patient’s disability.
But what if the therapist doesn’t believe a pet should be part of the patient’s treatment plan and rejects the patient’s request? Well, the patient can always go to another therapist.
And if that doesn’t work, an entire cottage industry of companies selling doctor’s letters and certification documents exists online.
By simply filling out a questionnaire and paying a fee in the $150-$200 range, anyone can obtain a letter written by a mental health professional without ever seeing that professional in person. Lying about a mental disability and receiving official documentation has never been easier.
And like it or not, these letters have legal status. While a few states have laws against misrepresenting a pet as an emotional support or service animal, there are no federal laws against it.
The two most popular and high-rated companies are The Dogtor and CertaPet.
The Dogtor requires no human interaction and provides a “medical examination” consisting of open-ended questions about the applicant's mental health history and issues.
CertaPet, on the other hand, provides a questionnaire with both open-ended and survey questions about an individual's mental health condition and how the pet helps alleviate those symptoms. Then a licensed mental health professional will call the applicant to further discuss his or her condition and eligibility for a letter.
Neither company seems to hide the fact that it exists to help people abuse the system. They both list exemption from paying pet housing deposits and airline pet fees as the top reasons to obtain an ESA prescription (see images above).
In addition to websites offering a therapist’s letter, several websites also offer ESA certification or registration. For instance, the official-sounding National Service Dog Registry sends people a certificate of ESA registration for $65 without verifying the person’s disability or need for an ESA.
However, a government recognized ESA certification system doesn't exist in the U.S. Any service offering such certificates are scams selling false credentials.
Problems for Airlines
The Air Carrier Access Act grants people with disabilities the right to fly with their ESA’s in the cabin of an aircraft without paying pet-related related fees. But airlines are receiving record numbers of requests for ESA’s, resulting in more problems and complaints than ever before.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, U.S. airline complaints about assistance animals have risen over over 3500 percent from 2004 to 2015. And nearly nine out of ten of those complains relate to people with “unspecified” disabilities, meaning none of the disabilities associated with true service animals (i.e. blindness, deafness, mobility impairment). Although it can't be confirmed that these “other” animals are ESAs, it may indicate a trend.
The ease with which people can obtain a doctor’s letter and abuse the system is a main contributor to this increase in airline complaints. Most people simply don’t want to pay extra to bring their pets with them while traveling. But even legitimate ESAs prescribed by mental health professionals through in-person consultations can be problematic.
Why? Because ESA’s don’t have to be trained.
When taking into the account the already tight quarters of an airplane and the high density of passengers, a disobedient animal doesn’t add well to the mix.
Common complaints include dogs biting other passengers, relieving themselves, barking for the entire flight, getting loose in the cabin, or chewing at the seat.
ESAs could also jeopardize an emergency evacuation because they aren’t trained for such an event and could obstruct human passengers.
Even if the animal is well-behaved, other passengers may not want to or be able to sit nearby an animal due to allergies or phobias.
The animal becomes a lot more than just a nuisance; it becomes a hazard, putting people’s health and safety at risk.
The matter becomes more complicated when the animal in question is a pig, kangaroo, or duck. While airlines apply breed, size, and weight limitations to passengers traveling with regular pets, they aren’t as strict when it comes to ESAs.
For passengers, seeing a pig or turkey at a petting zoo is one thing, but sitting next to one on a plane is another. Is the comfort of one passenger worth the discomfort or fear of hundreds of others?
Airlines are put in a tight spot. They have to ensure the validity of the person’s request by requiring and approving the ESA letter prior to flight departure. But airline employees are prevented by law from asking disabled travelers more than a few general
questions. And airlines also don’t want to intrude into a customers' private lives or offend them by challenging the ESA request.
Most of all, airlines don’t want to be sued for disability discrimination or get bad press. To avoid conflict, most tend to accept someone’s need for an ESA at face value.
The U.S. Department of Transportation last year convened a panel to look at the law and recommend changes in the system to prevent abuses on airplanes. The panel, entitled the Advisory Committee on Accessible Air Transportation (ACCESS), was comprised of representatives of the airline and mental-health industries as well as disabled advocacy groups.
The committee disbanded late in the year after members were unable to agree on any recommendations. But it plans to take up the issue again this year.
The goal is not to keep all ESAs off airplanes, but to tighten rules about what kinds of animals qualify and how an animal qualifies.