2018 has been a generally great year for emotional support animals and their owners, with a few bumps along the way. Although ESAs are a relatively new treatment plan for those suffering from a variety of mental health disorders, they have become increasingly popular over the last five years or so, and many benefits of having an emotional support animal have been demonstrated. The upswing in ESAs doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon either. 2019 looks set to increase their numbers all over America, and take off in the rest of the world too. But there has been some pushback against ESAs, which could have knock on effects for all types of emotional support animals in 2019.
Many people own pets, but only a select few can become ESAs. This status is bestowed on them by a doctor, who believes that an animal can help their patients on the long road to treatment for one of the many common mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and PTSD. ESAs can be a brand-new animal, or they can be a previous pet that already unofficially provides the role for the patient. They can be any species, and the best ESA animals for each patient usually depend on their specific condition. For example, the best pets for depression are uniformly dogs, as they engender a sense of responsibility for their owners, love to be outside, and also provide a pillar of constant companionship. Meanwhile, the best emotional support animals for anxiety are usually cats. They are relaxed, don’t require too much looking after, and can be a continued source of calm for the patient.
Many people might be wondering how to qualify for an emotional support animal. The process is remarkably easy: a medical health care professional must sign over an emotional support letter (or ESA letter), legitimizing the patient’s mental health disorder and qualifying them for an ESA. This ESA letter is like your pet’s passport. You must take it everywhere you bring your ESA along, no matter what the species of animal is, or what your specific mental disorder is. This is because emotional support animals come with a set of benefits that entitle them and their owners to special considerations. These considerations aren’t afforded to normal pets, as ESAs are seen as a form of therapy animal.
However, unlike service dogs, they require no specific training; an ESA can be beneficial to their owner just by being a regular pet. The benefits are all on the owner’s side, and it has more to do with how the owner feels and responds to the pet’s presence. In this way, an ESA letter would be seen more as owner-issued than pet-issued. These letters allow ESAs to avail of two distinct privileges. They can accompany their owner onto planes (in accordance with the Air Carrier Access Act) and into rented accommodation (in accordance with the Fair Housing Act). Obviously, regular pets can’t travel in airplane cabins or live in the majority of rented accommodation with their owners. However, because people who own ESAs suffer from mental health issues, they are classified as having a disability under federal law.
These two areas are where emotional support animals have experienced the biggest pushback in 2018. More animals than ever are traveling on planes and accompanying students into college accommodation. From 2016 to 2017, numbers of ESAs on planes has increased by 74%. No doubt that number has gone up again in 2018. This has worried the majority of major airlines, who have to deal with the potential fallout of carrying so many ESAs. In short, the vagueness of the language surrounding ESAs has allowed more than a few people to cheat the system. This is bad news for both regular passengers and the many thousands who legitimately benefit from being accompanied by an emotional support animal.
The same is true in rented accommodation, especially of the student variety. Although 2019 is set to be another big year for emotional support animals, many people are still confused over what they actually are, and how they differ from service animals and even regular pets. Much of the mission and challenge in 2019 will be an increase of information, and defining the rules and regulations around ESAs. It’s undeniable that this revolutionary treatment method has taken off in a big way in the U.S. The presence of emotional support animals has genuinely helped people grappling with mental illness, as the thousands of first-hand testimonies can attest to.
However, everyone needs to be clear exactly what the rules are surrounding ESAs, and those gaming the system need to be weeded out and stopped. While 2019 looks set to be a big year for ESAs and their owners, the treatment can only progress if there is more information available. This is not directed so much at patients or medical staff, but more airline authorities and landlords, who stand to be directly affected by the increase of ESAs. All in all, the future looks bright for emotional support animals, as long as everybody’s on the same page.