Well-Being Mental Health

Is the proliferation of Emotional Support Animals making you anxious?

After an avalanche of viral videos featuring emotional support peacocks, ducks, pigs and llamas strolling through airports and restaurants, most states are cracking down on licensing animals whose job is to help those of us with emotional problems.

While numerous studies have shown that animals can calm anxiety and help social interaction, there were increasing reports of people obtaining online ‘certificates’ of dubious value, so that their pets could travel for free, live in no-dog apartment complexes and accompany them into businesses that traditionally ban animals for public health reasons.

An online, for-profit national service registry reported that applications for emotional support animals (ESA) skyrocketed from about 2,500 in 2011 to more than 200,000 this past year — the vast majority of them dogs. But, unlike service dogs that are trained to perform tasks and save lives, ESAs don’t need any special training or certification; all that’s needed is a letter from a therapist that says they provide a therapeutic benefit to an owner.

The increase in easily obtainable certificates have been linked to an increase in animal misbehavior. Delta Airlines reported that incidents involving animals, including urination, defecation and biting, increased by 84 percent in 2018 compared to previous years. In August the U.S. Department of Transportation gave airlines broad powers to question ESA certification and deny service to animals for safety reasons. Airlines have cracked down; United Airlines denied boarding privileges to a massive support peacock, while others have denied exotic animals and even dogs that misbehaved or were unhygienic. 

There’s no federal laws regarding ESAs. Many states are looking into providing their own certification programs, or only accepting certification from nonprofit or medically licensed entities. Some states, such as Oklahoma, have given businesses and agencies more leeway in denying entrance to ESAs while others, such as Utah, have made it a misdemeanor to lie about a pet’s status as an ESA. Many have cracked down on for-profit online certification — or no longer recognize it.