More Than Just a Pet

More Than Just a Pet

Posted on March 15 2018

Recently, I read a news report about a woman who was denied boarding a United Airlines flight from Newark, New Jersey, because she wanted to bring along her peacock that she claimed was her emotional support animal (ESA). Despite having purchased a separate ticket for the bird, United refused saying peacocks did not qualify. This made me wonder which animals do qualify. Here’s what I found.

An emotional support animal can be any domestic animal. Dogs and cats are the most typical, but they can include rabbits, mice, ferrets, guinea pigs, ducks and potbellied pigs. The only stipulations are that the animals can’t be a health or safety threat to other people, and the owner must be able to keep it under control. Also, the animal can’t be one that’s illegal to own, such as certain exotic animals or any wild animal.

Although emotional support animals apparently serve a genuine purpose for some people, they have created controversy recently, especially on airplanes. In one instance a woman on a cross-country flight had to sit next to a large Dalmatian, which was on the owner’s lap. Another time, a man was bitten by a soldier’s emotional support dog.

ESAs, aka companion animals, provide comfort to people with emotional or psychological issues. Unlike a “service animal”, such as a seeing-eye dog or a dog that signals when its owner is about to have a seizure, ESAs are not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Neither are so called “therapy animals” that provide support for people in hospitals, nursing homes, and schools.

To declare a pet an ESA, all that’s required is a letter from a medical professional that states the psychological condition a person has and that the animal is important for his or her psychological well-being. There are no national standards or required certification of the animal. Such documentation can easily be obtained on line for a fee of about $120. One website offers printed certificates, vests, patches, or other apparel for the animal.

Some people can benefit from the companionship of an emotional support animal, but what constitutes an actual need is questionable, with an unknown number of well-adjusted people taking advantage of this practice to circumvent no-pet policies. Many people have a fear of flying, for example, but is that enough to justify having an ESA, which may cause distress for others around them, including someone, like me, who is very allergic to certain animals.

I was happy to learn that to help combat fraud, some states have passed bills making it a criminal offence, with large fines, to claim a pet is a service animal when it is not. I’m fully aware that science supports the notion that pets can enhance emotional and psychological well-being—I’ve had four wonderful dogs over the years—but I’m totally against fraudulently intruding on the peacefulness of others, as I think of what it would be like sitting on an airplane next to a peacock.

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