July 11, 2019

The number of people registering emotional support animals with the National Service Animal Registry has increased from 2,400 in 2011 to almost 200,000 today—and the increase has led some states to enact legislation strengthening requirements for such animals, Farah Stockman reports for the New York Times.

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How emotional support animals are regulated in the US

The Americans with Disabilities Act specifically defines service animals as dogs or small horses with specialized training for specific tasks, like leading a blind person or detecting seizures, Stockman writes. The law allows service animals in public places like restaurants and stores.

However, the protections for emotional support animals—which typically are not trained for specific tasks, like service animals are, and in recent years have grown to include a wide array of animals from dogs to snakes and rodents—are less finite, Stockman writes.  

As Stockman reports, emotional support animals are not afforded the same protections as service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Air Carrier Access Act gives airlines broad leeway to set their own requirements for emotional support animals. For example, some airlines do not allow emotional support animals into the passenger cabin for flights longer than eight hours.

In terms of housing, advocates for emotional support animals have said the Fair Housing Act, which mandates that landlords make "reasonable accommodations" for people with disabilities, gives tenants the right to live with an emotional support animal if the animal helps treat depression or anxiety.

How unclear laws can lead to legal uncertainty

The vague regulations regarding emotional support animals can sometimes lead to difficult battles.

For example, 26-year-old Vayne Myers in Florida got into a legal dispute with his landlord over his emotional support duck Primadonna, which Myers says has helped his anxiety. Myers said, "Whenever I felt like I didn't matter in the world," Primadonna would demonstrate that "something does love [me]."

Myers' landlord became aware of the duck during an unrelated maintenance visit. Myers said his landlord objected to Primadonna living in the rented unit and demanded Myers provide proof that the duck was a legitimate medical necessity, Stockman writes.

Myers provided a letter from a therapist in California stating that Primadonna served a medical purpose, as well as a note from a counselor Myers had met in person. However, neither satisfied the landlord's request, and the landlord threatened Myers with eviction, Stockman writes.

In response, Myers hired Matthew Dietz—litigation director of the Disability Independence Group, a nonprofit legal advocacy center in Florida—who filed a housing discrimination complaint with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, Stockman writes.

Dietz ultimately was able to negotiate with the landlord to allow Primadonna to stay with Myers. "My basic stance is that mental illness is tough," Dietz said, adding, "Anything that makes somebody feel better, why not? As long as you don't hurt anybody else, what's the big deal?"

Rise of emotional support animals prompts safety, legitimacy concerns

However, as the number of registered emotional support animals continues to climb, some advocates and individuals with registered service dogs say safety is becoming an issue.

Stockman reports that there have been several high-profile cases in which individuals with Seeing Eye dogs have filed complaints that their animals were attacked in airports or restaurants by untrained animals that their owners claimed were emotional support animals.

Emotional support animal verification also is a growing concern, Stockman reports. According to Stockman, individuals can obtain fake certificates online that claim their animals are used for emotional support, and some critics have said pet owners are acquiring the fake certificates to avoid paying certain fees or to get their animals into housing and other places they otherwise wouldn't be allowed.

For example, Sam Killebrew, a Republican state lawmaker in Florida's House of Representatives, was able to register his stuffed baboon, Ophelia, as an emotional support animal. "As long as you pay your money, you're going to get that card," he said.

Amanda Gill, government affairs director for the Florida Apartment Association, said the association has seen documentation claiming "everything from reptiles to insects" as certified emotional support animals.

States look to crack down on emotional support animals

Policymakers have acknowledged that it's difficult to regulate emotional support animals because they want to accommodate individuals with a legitimate need for the animals.

"Obviously, you want to accommodate people with legitimate requests, but that's harder to do when you have so many bogus requests," Gills said, adding, "Everyone is recognizing that this is a growing problem right now."

As such, states have taken different approaches to regulating emotional support animals. Utah this year passed a law making it a misdemeanor to lie about a pet being an emotional support animal, while Oklahoma passed a law clarifying that restaurants and stores do not have to allow support animals inside their businesses, since they are not protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In addition, Virginia has passed a law that cracks down on websites that provide emotional support animal verification letters for a fee without demonstrating any therapeutic relationship with the animal's owner, Stockman writes. In Florida, Killibrew says he plans to introduce a bill next year that would allow landlords to require tenants to get a letter from a medical professional licensed in the state verifying the tenant's need for the emotional support animal.

Todd Weiler, a Republican state senator in Utah, acknowledged, "It's really hard to draw a bright line." He added, "To a large extent, everybody could benefit from having a pet. When is it an emotional support animal and when is it a pet?" (Stockman, New York Times, 6/18).

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