Hello, my name is Chaz Stevens, and I want to welcome you to this training webinar on emotional support animals.
For therapist watching this course, I’ve pretty sure you’ve been approached by a client seeking an emotional support animal letter. Perhaps you’ve said no because of a matter of policy, perhaps you’re unfamiliar with the process, or maybe you’ll liberal with your letters of recommendation.
I am not a clinician, so around our office we employ a firewall that prohibits us from offering any therapeutic advice. So, inside this training, we’ll avoid any discussion about the therapy aspect of recommending an emotional support animal. Instead, we’ll focus our talk on everything else, from writing a perfect letter, to discussing the Fair Housing Act and the need for therapeutic sessions (from a non-clinical viewpoint). We’ll also talk about your role in determining whether the issuance of an ESA letter is appropriate.
Additionally, we’ll discuss the differences between emotional support animals and service animals (also known as assistance animals).
We’ll review some recent controversies about ESAs, like the peacock on the airline, and upcoming changes (we recorded this in spring of 2019) to Florida and Federal law.
Lastly, we'll talk about some of the relevant ethical issues. By the time that this course is completed, here's what we hope you will have learned. First, the legal context for emotional support animals and how they are different from service animals. Second, how you should apply the Fair Housing Act guidance when determining whether or not to write an ESA letter. And third, how to craft a perfectly-written ESA letter.
All rights, let’s begin.
What is an emotional support animal?
The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s guideline to qualify for an emotional support animal is an individual must have a “disability and disability-related need for an assistance animal.” HUD defines a disability as a significant impact on a major life activity. For example, an individual has issues sleeping or social interaction and an ESA would help mitigate those symptoms.
Fair Housing Act (FHAct) guideline
It’s all based around the HUD’s Fair Housing Act (FHAct) guideline, “Disability and disability related need for an assistance animal.”
In HUD’s vernacular, significant impacts on major life activities (sleep, concentration, focus, social interaction) are deemed disabilities. If an animal helps mitigate those symptoms (sleep better, etc.), if the animal is necessary for treatment, then we have a winner!
Each assistance animal must help address a unique functional limitation. Each assistance animal must be necessary for the treatment of a disability.
On a regular basis (daily), John Doe suffers serious problems with sleep and social interaction.
Thankfully, Mr. Mittens (cat) helps John sleep thru the night and Molly (dog) goes with John to the pool as an “icebreaker.” Who doesn’t want to hug a lab, right?
On a regular basis (daily), John Doe suffers serious problems with sleep.
John wants both of his cats approved. Since there’s only one disability, only one animal can be qualified.
Components of an ESA travel letter
Per Federal guidelines, an ESA letter of recommendation (written within the last year on the doctor’s letterhead) will contain important data points informing the reader (landlord, airline, etc.) the passenger/client is :
- A current patient of the mental health provider who’s writing the letter
- Under their care and treatment of a mental or emotional disability that’s outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Version IV or V
- Has an emotional disability that restricts them from daily participating or completing at least one significant activity
- The recommendation of an Emotional Support Animal is an important part of their mental health treatment
Thanks to the emotional support peacock, squirrel, and snake, traveling by air with your emotional support animal has become more time-consuming and more expensive. US and Canadian airlines now require mental health care providers to certify the passenger is currently undergoing professional care for ongoing treatment regarding a mental health-related disability.
Most airlines are follow American Airlines‘ ESA documentation validation which includes “contacting your mental health professional.” And given strict HIPAA data privacy guidelines, unless a passenger/client provides a signed waiver, clinicians cannot legally answer any airline queries regarding protected health information.
Does an animal need any specific training?
The short answer is no.
Emotional support animals do not require specialized training. However, they do require a therapist letter in order to be considered valid. Service Dogs require specialized training because they perform a specific task for their owner such as acting as a seeing eye dog or calming someone down who has PTSD.
While there are no unique training requirements for an ESA, however, it’s important for the animal to be well-behaved. The handler will be held responsible for any property damage or harm to others.
What’s the difference between an emotional support animal and a service animal?
There are three general categories of animals who may be considered as "assistance animals."
- Therapy animals: These animals are usually evaluated and registered by an agency and provide emotional support to individuals who need them. They are often used in hospitals, nursing homes and in school reading programs such as Reading Educational Assistance Dogs.
- Service animals: These animals have been specially trained to perform tasks their owner can’t do on his or her own. Guide dogs for the blind are perhaps the most well known in this category. Service animals are not required by law to wear vests or have any form of identification.
- Emotional support animals: These animals are not always explicitly trained, but serve as a comfort to individuals with a documented mental health condition. There is no restriction for the breed of emotional support animals because all domesticated animals can serve as ESAs.
An ESA is not like a Service Animal. SAs have access into the public space. An ESA only penetrates no-pets-allowed housing and on airline flights. A Service Animal performs a task, is often highly trained and penetrates the public space.
Eighteen states, including Virginia, Colorado and California, have laws that criminalize fraudulent representation of a service animal. These violations are usually misdemeanors, but repeated violations can result in jail time. West Virginia is not one of the 18 states, however, businesses could pursue a trespassing charge if a second incident occurs.
What is an assistance animal?
First, let’s being with the meaning of an assistance animal, as defined under US law, in particular the 2013 Fair Housing Equal Opportunity Notice, FHEO, which states,
“An assistance animal is not a pet. It is an animal that works, provides assistance, or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability.”
An emotional support animal is a type of assistance animal that is recognized as a "reasonable accommodation" for a person with a disability under the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA, 42 U.S.C.A. 3601).
The assistance animal is not a pet according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). HUD is the agency that oversees the FHA and investigates claims of housing discrimination.
The 2013 FHEO notice also details two essential functions of an assistance animal:
- It is an animal that works or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability.
- An assistance animal may provide emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person's disability.
The definition of an assistance animal is broad. Assistance animals may provide physical service, such as tasks on cue, but can also provide emotional support to the level that the animal’s support is necessary to alleviate the effects of a person’s disability.
Requesting an assistance animal
There are only two questions that HUD says a housing provider should consider with a request for an assistance animal as a reasonable accommodation:
Does the person seeking to use and live with the animal have a disability — i.e., a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities?
Does the person making the request have a disability-related need for an assistance animal? In other words, does the animal work, provide assistance, perform tasks or services for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provide emotional support that alleviates one or more of the identified symptoms or effects of a person's existing disability?
A "no" answer to either of the questions means that a housing provider is not obligated to make a reasonable accommodation according to HUD. This may mean that the person does not meet the definition of disability or that the assistance animal does not help with symptoms of the disability. If the answer is "yes" to both, then HUD states the FHA requires an exception to a "no pets" rule. The emotional support animal must alleviate, or help, some symptom(s) of the disability.
What about my ESA goat?
At our firm, we only recommend dogs and cats as emotional support animals.
We makes no designation or recommendation as to the specific animal an individual can or should have as their emotional support animal, no representation as to a particular animal’s fitness to function as an emotional support animal, and assumes no liability for the actions of the emotional support animal or its handler under any circumstance.
Ethics, ethos, and service dog fraud.
In many states, it now a crime to refer to your untrained family pet as a “service dog.” If you spent money on service dog registration and certification, demand a refund.
When you consider a service dog, many people imagine a large breed dog assisting its visually-challenged hander.
These highly trained animals perform a variety of valuable services to disabled individuals, such as assisting with emotional and psychological disorders, hearing, seizure and other debilitating conditions.
Now for the bad news.
Bogus Online Service Dog Registration
A rescue animal, saved from the pits of hell, with zero professional training does not magically transform into a “service animal” merely because someone spent $100 buying various knick-knacks from the Internet. I mean, they’ve got that certificate from a “national service animal registry!”
According to one popular website, “By registering your service animal or emotional support animal in our registry and having proper credentials, 99% of businesses won’t even bother asking you about your service animal.”
Certification does not mean an individual dog is a service dog. Neither does registration or an official looking ID. There are several businesses selling fake certification, registration and IDs over the internet. The dog is never tested and nor is the disability verified.
Bogus. Totally bogus.
Sure they’re liable to “game the system,” they’ll “get one over” on the restaurant owner, and the what-not. And in the meantime, they’re making it that much harder for those folks with a legitimate need for an assistance animal.
Service Dog Certification
Here at ESAD, we don’t certify services dog, we can’t register an emotional support animal, and within the pages of our website, you won’t find us selling emotional support dog vests.
Our job is simple.
We follow Federal Law, qualifying and approving individuals who suffer from a variety of emotional disabilities and who enjoy some respite from that turmoil through the love, attention, and affection of their animal.
Emotional Support Dog Registration
If you find websites offering service dog registration, animal registry, or the like, there’s an excellent chance you’re going to be taken to the cleaners. Your landlord will deny your request (and put a red flag in your file), and the airline will say no and stuff Fido down in the cargo hold.
And quite honestly and sorry to say, but landlords and airlines are entirely within their right to do so.
Please avoid the following:
- Service dog registration
- Service dog certification
- Service dog for anxiety
- Emotional support dog registration
- Emotional support dog certification
- ESA registration
Our business is emotional support animals. Under federal law, ESAs enjoy two rights. On the airplane with you, and in no-pets-allowed housing (no pet fees, around the pool, etc.). You can’t take the dog with you, not to the market, not to the bank, none of that.
In this regard, we need to pay attention to the words used that designate an assistance animal.
We recommend discarding the following from your professional vocabulary, as they don’t adequately describe HUD’s full definition of “assistance animal.”
Since there is no legal, definition, we would recommend not using the following terms:
- therapy dog
- therapy pet
- companion pet
- and companion animal
Fraud and the ESA letter
Thankfully, the ability to buy a “cheapie ESA letter online that works,” works being the operative word here, is quickly coming to an end. And, if a client is not engaged in an ongoing therapeutic relationship with a clinician, there’s a fast-increasing chance airlines will deny their reasonable accommodation request.
With a vast plethora of Internet-based businesses selling quick fixes, fraudulent ID cards, meaningless registrations, and get-out-of-fees letters, airlines are closely scrutinizing emotional support animal letters of recommendation.
Breaking out a fine-tooth comb, phrases such as “therapeutic relationship,” “under the treatment and care,” and “in the position to know” are quickly becoming part of the everyday ESA vernacular.
You see, anyone with a printer can “create an ESA letter.” And trust me, many fraudulent websites do just that — they’ve long mastered the basic idea of an emotional support letter (therapist name & license, something about the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual, maybe the animal’s weight, so forth and so on). And, as long as the letter’s on the therapist’s letterhead, it’s golden, right?
Sorry to say, but no thanks to peacocks on airplanes and instant pet certificates, a perfectly executed emotional support animal letter isn’t the Wonka Golden Ticket anymore.
Let alone those $79 jobs… Yeah, good luck with those.
As mentioned, it’s about the ongoing client/therapist relationship.
As we move further into 2019 and beyond, we expect reasonable accommodation requests submitted with ESA letters without a therapeutic basis to be routinely denied. Simply stated — if a client submits an ESA letter without additional therapeutic sessions, they’re rolling the dice.
Simply put, “cost-effective” ESA letters will likely meet the round file.
The Wild Wild West Dot Com
These days, access to the Internet and a credit card will likely qualify anyone for an assistance animal that’s verified with zero healthcare evaluation and no relationship with the therapist.
Allow me to repeat that, as it bears repeating. The majority of online ESA vendors will approve individuals for an emotional support animal relying solely on a self-reported assessment.
No meeting, speaking or reviewing medical history. No diagnosis, evaluation, visit, or treatment. Take a cheesy 5-minute assessment, drop down your VISA, and you’re all set!
Therapy goats, support peacocks, heck, we even had our 11-ton elephant (aka Muffin Top) approved.
Like Service Dog fraud, we staunchly believe these false certifications do a horrible disservice to the genuinely disabled — it’s a black eye to individuals with a legitimate need for service and emotional support animals.
What All This Means
Go ahead, google “emotional support animal letter,” and review the first page of search results. Chances are , there’s trouble with nearly all of those vendors.
Pro-tip: We know of an ESA website that’s operated by a convicted child molester.
They’re probably going to sell ESA letters based on a non-existent relationship. If someone is wicked lucky, they’ll have a therapist who practices within your area. They’ll save time as that therapist won’t even bother to call, won’t reach out to them, they will merely assess their “needs” based on that cheesy exam they completed.
By the way, about that exam, you know — the one a client might have poured your heart into answering … maybe chronicled some deep secrets they’d like to keep, well, secret?
Before a client provided intimate personal details:
- Does that site like someone you’d trust with your darkest secrets?
Do you know who now owns your protected health information? Any ideas? Are they even located in the US?
If it’s starting to have an “ah ha” moment, or worse, now’s the time to wonder how your protected health information was stored, saved, and accessed.
Imagine it appearing on the Dark Web for sale.
Don’t Blame Millennials For All The Emotional Support Animals, Delta’s CEO Said
The CEO of Delta, Ed Bastian, told BuzzFeed News in an interview that travelers’ reliance on emotional support animals is “out of control” — but that he doesn’t blame millennials for the boom in in-flight pets.
Delta is among the airlines that cracked down last year on the lightly regulated practice of bringing animals — from dogs to snakes to pigs and, in one case, a peacock named Dexter — on planes, updating its policies first to limit customers to one animal, and then to ban them on flights of more than eight hours. The moves by airlines to crack down on the companions have been interpreted by some as a rejection of millennial needs, with Vice headlining a story on Southwest’s snake ban “War on Millennials,” and a Yale researcher saying Americans should “worry about what [the trend] says about millennials.”
Oh, about Dexter.
His name was Dexter. He was a peacock. And when a United Airlines passenger tried to bring him aboard a United Airlines flight, he became a symbol of everything that’s wrong with airline passengers abusing the rules allowing emotional support animals.
Now the peacock’s owner, a New York artist named Ventiko, says Dexter is gone: dead, but perhaps not quite yet buried, as his feathers adorn a little shrine in Ventiko’s loft in Brooklyn.
Dexter rose to fame when Ventiko tried to bring him aboard a United flight from Newark to Los Angeles on Jan. 27. But both the artist and the bird were denied boarding, and Ventiko capitalized on the situation by posting pictures of the pavo cristatus from the baggage claim area on Instagram.