Over the past few years, more and more doctors have approved emotional support animals for their patients. Although many people assume dogs are the only type of emotional support animals, this is not the case. Recently, reporters discovered a Pennsylvania man who was assigned a three-year-old emotional support alligator. The alligator is part of a rapidly growing array of emotional support animals available to Americans.
What Are Emotional Support Pets?
According to PetMD, service animals are those “that are specially trained to perform essential life tasks and assist people with physical or mental disabilities.” Typically, these pets are categorized by the function that they provide, and are referred to commonly as:
- Assistance Pets
- Support Pets
- Helper Animals
While assistance pets usually help their owner with physical issues, support animals are explicitly intended to treat mental and emotional problems. Therapy animals are used to provide security and comfort and are often used in schools and nursing homes. Psychiatric service animals are trained to help those with a mental or emotional disability complete necessary tasks.
Emotional support animals are granted to their owners by a mental health professional after a rigorous process. Licensed therapists must submit a letter of recommendation that outlines their patient’s needs for an emotional support animal. These needs must meet the requirements described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Veterinarian Jennifer Coates told PetMD, “All pets make us feel better about ourselves and the world we live in, but an emotional support animal goes further. An ESA must be prescribed by a mental health professional as part of the treatment for a diagnosed mental or psychiatric disability.”
What Type Of Animals Can Serve As Emotional Support Pets?
As mentioned, it’s not just dogs who can serve their owners as emotional support animals. The site Emotional Pet Support indicates that “all domesticated animals may qualify as an ESA.” This not only includes dogs and cats but hedgehogs and mini pigs as well!
One of the primary reasons for this is the fact that these animals do not need specific task-training that is required of other service animals. In short, an emotional support pet’s job is merely to “exist” and be present for their owner, as their presence helps reduce the symptoms associated with the owner’s psychological disability.
Emotional support pets don’t perform tasks on their owner’s behalf. To become an emotional support pet, the animals must not create a nuisance in a domestic setting. It also must be manageable in public. This is perhaps the primary source of controversy surrounding the recent exposure of an ESA alligator.
Wally, The Emotional Support Alligator
Joie Henney is a 65-year-old Pennsylvania resident who has a three-year-old alligator named Wally as his registered emotional support animal. Henney told the Star-Advertiser, “My doctor wanted to put me on depression medicine, and I hate taking medicine. I had Wally, and when I came home and was around him, it as all OK. My doctor knew about Wally and figured it works, so why not?”
Henney had rescued the alligator and was already raising it in his home when his doctor attempted to register it as an emotional support animal. Because Henney was able to demonstrate that the alligator did not create a nuisance in the home and that it helped reduce his depression, his doctor was able to register the animal as an emotional service pet.
Fortunately, there is research that backs the fact that emotional support animals can help cure depression and other mental health conditions. For instance, nearly 75 percent of pet owners told the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute that having a pet improved their mental health.
Life coach Desiree Wiercyski told WebMD, “A pet can remind you that you’re not alone. Pets offer unconditional love which can be extraordinarily soothing when feeling isolated.” Clinical psychologist Perpetua Neo told the site, “Animals pick up on when their owners are distressed. When they sense you’re not feeling well, they offer comfort.”
A Growing Nationwide Controversy As The Use Of ESAs Increases
Because of their ability to help their owners cope with mental health conditions, more and more people have begun using emotional support animals. Many colleges have had to deal with an influx of students who wish to bring emotional support animals into their dorm rooms, to which the school must oblige.
Emotional support animals were also in the news last year when one woman attempted to bring her peacock onto a United Airlines flight departing Newark Liberty International Airport. The woman claimed that the peacock was an emotional support animal and that she had purchased a ticket for the bird. However, officials denied the bird access to the plane, citing the fact that it did not meet its size and weight requirements.
This came after Delta Airlines recently stating that they were going to tighten their requirements on service and support animals due to a rise in ill animal behavior. Delta said that they had seen an 84 percent increase in this behavior, resulting in incidents on flights such as:
Delta claimed that a well-trained service animal would not exhibit this behavior. In a statement, the airline said, “Untrained animals that have been misidentified as service and support animals are regularly reported to occupy seats, stretch across the aisles and move throughout the cabin during flight, often without restriction.” Delta said that they had seen everything from “comfort turkeys” to spiders and sugar gliders. They said that they would no longer admit these ESA:
- Any animal with horns, hooves, or tusks
Are You Interested In Obtaining An Emotional Support Animal?
If you have an animal at home that provides you comfort, and you’ve struggled with mental or emotional health, you could be eligible for an emotional support animal. Speak with a trusted medical professional about your situation to see if you could obtain a letter of support. Be sure that the message comes from a licensed medical professional, as this will increase the likelihood of housing facilities or airlines recognizing it.