Are Emotional Support Animals Necessary or Just Glorified Pets?

They may not be lions and tigers and bears, but they are dogs and cats and bunnies, not to mention all sorts of other critters. Who are they? They're Emotional Support Animals, and they’re becoming more and more common on planes, in college dorms, in restaurants, and elsewhere in public life. This week, by request from an anonymous listener, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen explains what exactly emotional support animals are, and whether or not you really have to sit next to one at your favorite restaurant.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #128

A couple of years ago, a reporter for The New Yorker demonstrated just how fuzzy public understanding is regarding emotional support animals by toting five different fake emotional support animals around New York City (though, mercifully, not all at the same time). On her forays, she claimed to be comforted, in turn, by a fifteen-pound turtle on a leash, a four-and-a-half-foot tall alpaca, a turkey, a pig in a stroller, and a snake (insert your own Snakes on a Plane joke here). She brought them into fancy restaurants, through airline security, into a museum, and onto a crowded New York bus. She showed how easy it was, for a fee, to obtain a letter from a therapist, ID cards, and all sorts of emotional support animal paraphernalia.

All this gives a bad name to people who are disabled and need a trained service animal, as well as emotional support animal owners who act ethically. It’s much like people who fake an allergy simply due to personal taste.

No government agency oversees service animals, much less emotional support animals, but several online commercial entities claim to be “national registries,” where anyone with a credit card can outfit a pet with the trappings of either.

So this week, let’s clear the air about emotional support animals versus service animals. Who are they? What do they do? Where can they go?

Difference #1: What they do. The difference can be summed up this way: Service animals do, while emotional support animals are. In other words, service animals perform specific tasks. The function of a service animal is not to provide emotional support, but to perform tasks necessary for a disabled person to function, like guiding someone who is blind, alerting someone who is deaf, rolling a person having a seizure into a safe position, or calming someone with PTSD during a flashback.

By contrast, emotional support animals help simply by being there. They don’t undergo any specific training—their presence in and of itself is comforting to someone suffering from anxiety, depression, or another mental or physical illness. For example, to someone with PTSD who gets anxious or can’t sleep when alone at night, the emotional support animal doesn’t have to do anything in particular, it just has be there to make a genuine difference.

Difference #2: Who they are. A trained service animal can only be a dog or a miniature horse. (If you’re like me and hadn’t heard of a guide horse before, apparently it’s a growing thing—horses live decades longer than dogs, have 350 degree vision, and have almost perfect night vision—who knew?)

By contrast, any kind of critter—bird, bunny, hedgehog—could be an emotional support animal, so long as it serves a therapeutic purpose for its owner.

Think of it this way: Just as a square is a rectangle, but a rectangle isn’t a square, a dog or a miniature horse could also be an emotional support animal, but a bird, bunny, or hedgehog can’t be a service animal.

Difference #3: Where they can go.  Is that emotional support bunny allowed in the dorm? Is that emotional support dog really allowed in Whole Foods? In contrast to service animals, who can go pretty much anywhere under the Americans with Disabilities Act, emotional support animals can only legally accompany their owners in two places: in their owners’ homes and on airplanes. Even if a landlord normally doesn’t allow pets in the building, or a college doesn’t allow animals in the dorm, the Fair Housing Act requires that emotional support animals be allowed to live with their owners. The Air Carrier Access Act requires the same with airplanes.  Anywhere else, however, isn’t covered, like stores, hotels, museums, restaurants, or hospitals. If you’re a business or restaurant owner, you are legally required to allow a service animal who performs a trained service for someone with a disability into your establishment. An emotional support animal, though? You can politely decline entry to the animal, even if the owner has a letter from a therapist or “certification.”

Because emotional support animals don’t have a special skill, there is controversy about whether or not they actually do anything besides make people happier and calmer. It’s intuitive that animals are comforting, so does anything separate an emotional support animal from a beloved pet? The research is still inconclusive: according to a 2016 study in Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, it’s unclear whether emotional support animals actually provide a therapeutic effect, or just create general positive effect characteristic of all animals.

That said, for someone fighting anxiety, depression, or another diagnosable disorder, feeling happier and calmer is not nothing. In my opinion, it’s reasonable to allow an animal to live with someone who truly benefits from the very real emotional support it provides. It’s unreasonable, however, to toss around fake disability credentials just to tote your pet into fancy restaurants. As of this writing, there’s no oversight of service animals or emotional support animals, so no laws are technically being broken, even by The New Yorker reporter with her turkey on the bus. But frustrated business owners, not to mention people with actual disabilities, are pushing to make misrepresenting a service animal a misdemeanor, or at least as frowned upon as using a fake handicapped placard.

So to our anonymous listener, yes, you might indeed have to sit next to a turkey on a plane, but the only place you should find one in a restaurant is on the menu.

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All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.