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Emotional Support Animal Debate

Emotional support animals are controversial. Let’s talk about the difference between service animals and emotional support animals, why emotional support animals are increasing in popularity, and why they are so controversial.

Both service animals and emotional support animals serve a distinct purpose in their owner’s lives, but there are some key differences.

Service Animals:
Are trained to complete specific tasks to support a person with a disability such as blindness, limited mobility, or diabetes. Service animals’ access to all businesses and public spaces is protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Service animals usually receive extensive training before becoming a “working” dog.

Emotional Support Animals:
Provide companionship to a person with an emotional or phycological disability such as PTSD, anxiety or depression. These animals do not typically require special training. In most states emotional support animals do not have access to all businesses and public places, instead they are limited to being allowed to accompany their owner in no-pet housing, and to fly on an airplane with their owner if they are needed in-flight or at the owner’s destination.

Increase in popularity:
Anyone with a pet reaps positive emotional benefits from interaction with their animal. As humans, we adopt pets and treat them as valued members of our families. So, when furry family members are prohibited from housing or people fear having to leave a pet behind because of flight restrictions, they often turn to the option of an emotional support animal.

You might wonder why don’t people just find other housing or travel with their animal as checked baggage? There are many reasons: unavailability of housing, safety, cost, and restrictions for animals traveling as checked baggage, to name a few.

The controversy:
Service animals and emotional support animals are not required to be registered as such with any entity. That’s right, there are numerous voluntary registries, but no requirement. Because housing and airline documentation pertains to the person and not the animal, animals can often be untrained and even sometimes lack basic obedience. All that is needed is a letter from a mental health provider or physician stating that the person has a health requirement for the animal.

While the majority of service and emotional support animals are well-behaved, there have been instances of poor behavior, including accidents, barking, and even aggression- which has led the housing and airline industries to seek better controls for emotional support animals.

Here at SPCA International, we’re closely monitoring the debate. We know that both service animals and emotional support animals provide an extraordinary benefit to their owners, and we hope that any regulations are developed carefully and with the interest of the animals in mind, as well as humans.