College campuses, airports and apartment buildings are making more exceptions to their typical "no pets allowed" rules. The reason? People are registering their pets as emotional support animals.
The logic behind emotional support animals may seem a fuzzy to some. After all, don't we all love our pets? Surely many pet-owners are aware of the joy that stems from a dog being overwhelmed with excitement when you walk in the door, or the comfort of stroking a cat gently purring on your lap.
Though it's unmistakable that pets provide emotional support, there is a legal difference between pets and ESAs. Unlike house pets, ESAs are approved by a doctor or therapist as integral to a person's mental or emotional health. They are exempt from certain housing and travel restrictions placed upon house pets, but do not enjoy the full benefits of service animals.
For a long time, there was no distinction between a highly-trained service animal like a seeing-eye dog and an untrained animal said to provide emotional support. That all changed in 2010, when the U.S. Department of Justice ruled that service animals are dogs or miniature horses who have been trained to perform specific tasks for the benefit of disabled individuals, according to the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.
Service dogs have usually completed months, if not years, of training before being placed with their owners, who can spend more than two years on a waiting list before receiving their pet, according to PBS. These dogs are allowed to do many things other animals cannot, such as accompany their owners in buildings, airplanes and apartments where pets are otherwise banned.
Service animals are usually recognizable by their vests. We've all seen them: "Service dog at work. Do not pet me!" Fortunately, these dogs are so highly trained that they do not become violent even if a person or another dog were to attack them. Therein lies the problem with emotional support animals -- they don't know they are working, they might not have received the training to navigate crowded public spaces and they aren't guaranteed to react non-violently if provoked.
ESAs aren't afforded the Americans with Disabilities Act's coverage of service animals, but they do have protection under the Air Carrier Access Act and the Federal Housing Act, the Los Angeles Times reports. This means ESAs can fly in air cabins for free and live in no-pets housing, including college dorms.
For service animal owners, the sudden rise in ESAs is worrisome. Online registration services make it easy to qualify pets for cost-free flights and pet-free housing for a fee. One journalist with The Mercury News registered his deceased canine as an ESA. What's more, he used his own picture instead of an animal's.
Seven-tour veteran Josh Collins told The Mercury News he's afraid of a "certified" dog lunging at his service dog, Big Charlie, who trained for 18 months.
"It doesn’t matter how good a dog is at home," said Collins. "It only matters how reliable a dog is."
ESAs also make it more difficult to prevent people from passing off their dogs as service animals.
"Today, any pet owner can go online and buy a vest for a dog to pass it off as a service animal to gain access to restaurants, hotels and places of business,” said Massachusetts Republican State Rep. Kimberly Ferguson, who introduced a state bill to crackdown on fake service pets, PBS reports. "Their animals aren’t trained and end up misbehaving in these public places, which gives real service dogs a bad name."
The Daily Beast cites an example of a St. Bernard that attacked a golden retriever at a mall. Both animals were wearing service vests.
"[The St. Bernard's owner] said his dog was startled by her wheelchair," said Angela Eaton, one the golden retriever’s trainers. "Well, service dogs should be growing up around a wheelchair."
Nineteen states have introduced legislation to create repercussions for owners who falsely proclaim their pets to be service animals, according to PBS.
It's worth noting not all ESAs are average house pets, just as not all ESA owners are faking their psychological needs just to get their pet onto a flight. The lack of distinction between the two, however, puts the welfare of both people and other animals at risk.