Who let the dogs (and the cats and the hamsters and the parrots) in?

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A dog in a deli. A cat in a coffee shop. A bird on an airplane. Companion animals who serve double duty as emotional support animals (ESAs) are showing up more and more in places you wouldn’t normally expect them to be. It’s part of a growing trend that includes certifying animals to provide emotional assistance to a person with a diagnosable mental condition or emotional disorder.

(An ESA is very different from a service animal, which is closely defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act: only dogs and miniature horses can be considered service animals.)

There’s also the matter of whether the animal in question is actually a certified ESA—or just a pet some couple didn’t want to pay a sitter to watch while they went out to a movie. In fact, a number of states have passed legislation to crack down on people who falsely claim their pets are ESAs in order to get them into places they’re not normally supposed to be.

A new paper by researchers at the University of New Mexico titled "Emotional Support Animal Assessments: Toward a Standard and Comprehensive Model for Mental Health Professionals," published by the American Psychological Association, outlines the ethical challenges and offers possible solutions to better serve people who feel they need ESAs, the mental-health professionals who have to write a letter of certification for patients who ask, and those who must comply with the certified animals, such as landlords and airlines.

The researchers suggest a four-point, standard assessment model for therapists to follow when asked to provide a patient with an ESA certificate. These guidelines include:

  • Understanding, recognizing, and applying the laws regulating ESAs
  • A thorough, valid assessment of the individual requesting an ESA certification
  • An assessment of the animal in question to ensure it actually performs the valid functions of an ESA
  • An assessment of the interaction between the animal and the individual to determine whether the animal’s presence has a demonstrably beneficial effect on that individual

Lead author Jeffrey Younggren, PhD, a forensic psychologist and clinical professor at the University of New Mexico’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, said that in this model, you have to take the animal into consideration: “Somebody must certify that the animal is able to do what you’re asking it to do. And there are avenues by which animals can be evaluated regarding their capacity for these kinds of experiences.”

For example, when a person with an anxiety problem takes medication to calm down, the effects are measurable and backed by scientific testing and research. But Younggren says there’s very little evidence to scientifically support that animals have the same effect.

Younggren and his colleagues hope that by standardizing guidelines and practices, there’ll be fewer instances like the one recently in which a flight attendant needed five stitches after being bitten by an emotional support dog.

By law, service animals must be trained to provide a function otherwise inaccessible to their owner, but ESAs aren’t currently being held to that standard.

It’s a problem that Younggren hopes this new research will help to correct.

Photo credit: © iStock/Michael Krinke