What Are Emotional Service Animals?

Kristin Schwartz, MC, PsyD on Mar 02, 2023 in Treatment Orientation

I see great value in emotional support animals (ESAs) both personally and professionally. I have seen animals make a significant impact in the lives of many of my clients. I also believe that there is a section of the population that has leveraged the ESA designation to unethically work around reasonable financial expenses associated with pet ownership.

Emotional support animals, or ESAs, are a prescribed behavioral intervention (a thing you do versus a pill you take). Think about an ESA as something like a 504 plan in the educational system or a medical device that is prescribed by a provider, such as orthotics for your shoes. An ESA is meant to allow equitable access to a community’s resources to someone with a disabling mental illness. 

As tempting as it may be, ESAs are not meant to be a workaround for pet rent or avoiding the expenses of flying your pet on an airline. Falsifying an illness or need for an ESA to avoid pet expenses is not only a way to diminish the value and purpose of ESAs, it is akin to pretending to be paralyzed to get to the front of the line at Disneyland. What’s more, fraudulently representing your ESA as a service animal is a violation of Section 365.7 of the California Penal Code — meaning fines and other penalties can take place if you do not have a valid ESA letter or attempt to have your animal pass as an ESA. I may strongly disagree with some of the expenses of being a four-legged fur-baby parent, but I do believe those can and should be addressed in a direct fashion instead of being subverted through fraudulent documentation. 

The first question I will always employ when being asked to make an ESA determination/designation is: “Why?” Why do you want your animal to be designated an emotional service animal?” The next question will always be: “How will the ESA designation be used? Where? When? Will your animal be safe and know how to behave in those environments?” This will always be followed up with: “If I had the magic wand and your animal was designated an ESA today, how would your life be different?” This helps guide and expedite my process and yours to understand why your animal may be considered an ESA.

It is also important to note that while I adore animals and have had the great honor of working in animal cognition labs during my schooling, I am not an animal trainer — nor are most licensed mental health providers who may write an ESA letter. It is important to work with a trainer and/or behaviorist to ensure that your animal is safe and well-behaved in any environment for his/her well-being as well as for everyone else’s peace of mind.

Who Might Benefit from an ESA?

ESAs hold a special power to help ease intense anxiety, overcome the stumbling blocks of depression, or soften the waves of panic that can arise with post-traumatic stress disorder. Animals have been shown to have a unique ability to help us lower our heart rate and blood pressure, sense when emotions are becoming heightened, and help people anchor in the here and now instead of being washed away in a torrent of traumatic memories. Not every animal nor every patient will be a right fit for an ESA. For those who do fit that intervention, it can be life-changing.

ESAs cannot fix everything, but they are meant to be a behavioral intervention that can reduce or eliminate the need for pharmaceutical interventions and/or loss of access to community resources. This can be incredibly important when someone is trying to work towards greater independence and equitable access to community resources that many of us get to take for granted. For example, I had the honor of working with someone who was personally affected by the mass shooting in Las Vegas in 2017. Waves of panic would wash over her at night, leaving her exhausted and unable to attend classes or keep a clear head for exams. 

After a year of working on feeling safe out with her friends or even in her own home, she came upon the idea of an emotional support animal. Her greatest obstacle to success was feeling safe at night when the rest of the world had gone quiet. She needed sleep, and she found an animal who similarly needed a safe home and was able and willing to support her at night. With the help of this cat who would snuggle close and help her calm herself when she woke in the cold sweat of nightmares, she finally began to get back to sleep more quickly. 

Having the weight, warmth, softness, and rhythmic breathing of this rescue who rescued her meant that she could feel a sense of security and agency in saving herself again. This specific ESA was not meant for going out. She solely facilitates her ESA for sleep and nighttime panic, and it has made all the difference in this young woman’s ability to work toward her own educational and professional goals during the day. Having an ESA means that this young woman can employ her own internal chemical cascades when rebuilding a regular sleep schedule instead of trying to depend on sleep aides that do little to resolve nightmares and have a known effect of impeding a healthy sleep cycle. The use of an ESA combined with ongoing environmental and therapeutic interventions meant that this young woman could maintain access to education while overcoming a traumatic event without pharmaceuticals. 

This is exactly the purpose and value of ESAs: to allow equitable community, professional, educational, recreational, and housing access to those among us who have a debilitating psychologically based illness.

Why Is It Such a Big Deal?

Most of us remember the news coverage of the ESA peacock on a plane or have listened to the hold "music" for airlines that reminds us that having zebras walking up and down the aisles simply isn’t safe or hygienic for passengers despite its entertainment value. 

What’s more, we simply cannot plan for the amount of stress we may be placing on our fellow community members, whether because of their allergies or past traumatic experiences with animals, when we bring our animals into environments in which they would not typically be found. We must be judicious in our requests and expectations of those around us and ensure that we are not employing an intervention that limits others’ access to the community. 

The advantages of having a designated ESA are meant to offset the disadvantage of not being able to use our bodies or our brains in the same fashion as the typical person moving through this world. Faking documentation for an ESA is like printing off your own disabled parking permit just to park in the front-row spot, thereby taking that spot from someone who actually needs it. Having undergone an assessment and obtaining a letter from a licensed mental health professional is much like undergoing a disability assessment for that disabled parking permit. It ensures that those who need an ESA designation for their animal get one, and it also decreases abuse on the system. To help keep people from unethically abusing the system, California has placed several restrictions on who/how/why a person may obtain a valid ESA letter/designation for their animal.

How Do I Figure Out If an ESA Is Right for Me?

The best and easiest way to figure out if an ESA is right for you is to reach out to a licensed psychologist in your area and talk to an animal behaviorist or training expert. 

Most importantly, you have to consider whether or not you want to take on the responsibility of caring for an animal throughout that animal’s life. Depending on the animal, that could be five years or twenty-five years. What kind of commitment are you willing to make? 

If you want to designate a pet you already have as an ESA, it is important to think about the obstacles. 

If you’re hoping for a break on taxes, definitely talk to a tax professional. 

Additionally, you have to consider why you need or want a formal label of “ESA.” Again, what is the ultimate goal in going through the evaluation process and getting the certification? Make sure you’re doing it for all the right reasons. ESAs need to be properly trained to seamlessly fit into whatever setting in which they are expected to provide support. 

For us at Wellness Therapy of San Diego, that means that animals should be able to engage in good citizenship behaviors in their environment or when impacting their/your world (i.e., good citizen classes, basic training, potty training, etc). If you think your situation and your animal fit into the emotional service animal basket, then definitely reach out to us. We’ll be happy to guide you through the process of formalizing it.

Kristin Schwartz is a Psychologist in San Diego, CA.

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