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Why I don’t support ‘emotional support’ animals

August 22, 2018

I love animals. I especially love the way they can be so helpful to humans, even though we are often less than helpful to them.

As a psychologist, I notice the ability of animals to reach humans, such as autistic individuals, children and victims of strokes, who are not readily reached by typical “talk” methods. Animals often work as therapists in hospitals and nursing homes, where people seem more moved to connect with them than with other humans. Animals can be trained to assist people with disabilities and demonstrate uncanny sensitivity to medical factors such as blood-sugar levels or impending seizures.

Having said that, I view with concern the recent trend toward “emotional support” animals. My concern lies in the fact that the ability of animals to soothe and comfort humans is now being used to request accommodations in rules regarding where animals may be taken.

These are not highly trained service dogs who must have documented training in the specific method in which they help their human; these animals are primarily the pets of humans who find that their presence helps calm anxiety or other symptoms of stress.

I was recently asked for a letter to support a patient who wanted her lease amended to allow her to keep her emotional support animal in an apartment complex that otherwise has a “no pets” policy. Furthermore, the accommodation requested that no additional rent or pet deposit be assessed. In other words, can we please void the rules so someone who feels anxious does not have to abide by them?

Airlines are struggling to deal with an influx of these requests without being perceived as insensitive to people with “disabilities,” anxiety considered the disability in question.

I work with folks suffering from anxiety every day. Our goal is to find ways to manage anxiety so that relatively normal functioning is possible. Relatively normal functioning means dealing with life the way it is (for example, some apartments don’t allow pets; some people take anxiety medicine to cope with a fear of flying or just don’t fly).

If you want a pet, don’t move into an apartment complex that doesn’t allow pets. Asking for the rules to be changed because you don’t like them is fine, but those who make the rules are being forced into making exceptions so as not to offend anyone with a “disability.”

Anxiety can indeed be crippling. One man I worked with years ago moved his family to another state where he could obtain medical marijuana to overcome the obsessive-compulsive symptoms that rendered him unable to work without it.

Anxiety can be managed in a variety of ways. I worry that the use of emotional support animals simply enables people to find a way that requires everyone else to do all the changing.

Susan Hull is a clinical psychologist and the founder of Wild Hearts Unlimited, an animal welfare organization.