The name says it all. Emotional support animals, also known as ESAs, are pets that bring comfort to individuals suffering from mental or physical concerns. These helpful companions don’t do anything in particular. They don’t have to. Any pet lover knows that having a close relationship with an animal reduces stress and provides an emotional anchor. Some people need it more than others and that’s where ESAs shine.
Dogs remain the most widely used, but cats are also popular. The interesting thing about ESAs is that they can be any animal. In effect, whatever species resonates with the person decides their type of companion. This flexible nature among ESA owners often causes trouble. People have shown up at airports with their support peacocks, pigs, monkeys, and ducks. Airlines don’t always accommodate such exotic passengers. In fact, a peacock and his owner were barred from boarding an airplane recently.
The ESA movement is growing. A host of benefits provides fertile grounds to ensure that these wonderful pets are going to stick around in the self-help therapy business. Indeed, owners have reported less anxiety, more happiness, better health, reduced loneliness, healing from trauma, and a sense of purpose and acceptance since the pet returns unconditional love. Researchers are still trying to measure the benefits in a clinical way. Scientifically, the stance is that ESA benefits remain unproven. Most ESA owners beg to differ.
One reason why experts doubt the phenomenon is that emotional support pets are not service animals. The latter receive intense training to assist with a specific problem, mostly disabilities. ESAs only provide companionship and undergo no special training. Despite their emotional role, they’re also not recognized as psychiatric service animals. Dogs are taught to be psychiatric helpers are also trained to deal with a specific task.
Despite their unofficial status, ESAs are edging towards being recognized in their own right. There are already traveling and housing laws in place, which is a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, landlords in certain areas have the right to refuse ESAs, make owners pay an extra fee or demand that they turn over extensive – and private – medical records to prove that they need a support animal. Since ESAs are also not officially recognized by law, businesses like restaurants and shops can ban them. Worse, some public areas can do the same. Certain airlines also only accept cats, dogs, and miniature horses as ESAs and slam the cabin door on the rest. All of this can be very distressing to people who already suffer from anxiety.
For this reason, people often try to obtain notes from their doctors or therapists, explaining the pet is necessary and should be allowed to travel with the person. This doesn’t always work. Health care providers fear that people rely too much on ESAs, but only when the animal is the sum of their total therapy. In other words, when somebody with serious mental issues – think trauma, panic attacks and phobias – only use animal companionship, they might not get the care that they need. However, most doctors agree that an ESA is a wonderful way to compliment a more conventional recovery plan.