Pigs might fly: the problem of Emotional Support Animals
In November 2014, a young male passenger named Hobey was asked to leave a US Airways flight from Connecticut to South Carolina shortly before take-off. His travel companion, Rachel, protested strongly. Cabin staff pointed out that Hobey had just defecated in the aisle. Rachel argued that he was being discriminated against. Cabin staff said yes, he was, but only because he was a pig. Rachel carried Hobey off the plane.
This is just one of many bizarre and increasingly common incidents, mostly in the US, where Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) and their owners find themselves on the wrong side of the rules. However, when the law does protect them, it frequently provokes outrage.
So, why are these animals — which are intended to improve mental health — causing so much stress? Let’s start with the basics.
What even is an ESA?
ESAs are companion animals which are supposed to improve an individual’s functioning (i.e. their ability to do things, like flying or being out in public), by easing their anxiety or boosting their mood. But, unlike Service Animals (e.g. guide dogs) or Therapy Animals, ESAs are not specifically trained for their role.
Despite their lack of training and the absence of an official system for registering their support function, however, ESAs have been recognised in at least two US laws (air transport and accommodation). And there’s already legal precedent for the recognition of ESAs in American workplaces, too.
I’m not denying that there are many individuals who enjoy their ESA’s company, and that those animals may help their mood in certain situations. But there are significant problems with ESAs that must be addressed now that their presence is so widespread.
Will the real ESA please stand up?
I’ve already said that there are probably genuine ESAs out there. We can imagine the woman with agoraphobia whose small, well-behaved emotional support dog enables her to go to shopping without having a panic attack. The man whose cat lifts his mood when he’s alone in his apartment. Or Daniel the duck, who made friends and warmed hearts on his first flight (his owner had dressed him in a nappy to prevent Hobey-style accidents).
But for every real ESA, we can only guess how many others are simply pets re-branded to be allowed in places where they’d otherwise be denied access. To differentiate between a pet and an ESA, US lawmakers asserted that the owner must produce a certificate from a suitably qualified medical professional (such as a psychiatrist) to attest to the essential psychological support role the animal plays in their life.
These certificates are available for $100–200 online, depending on the provider. Qualified psychologists will sign off your ESA after you’ve responded to a few questions, having never met you or the animal. A Guardian reporter recently obtained two certificates online for a fictitious pet and a made-up mental health problem, with no more human contact than one three-minute phone call to verify the application.
When the cost of carrying a pet onto a flight or the fee for having one in your apartment exceed the cost of such a certificate, the economic case for designating your pet an ESA is a no-brainer.
Such is the problem of dubious online ESA certification, a group of psychologists decided to write an academic paper on the professional ethics of signing off ESA certificates. Their conclusion: don’t do it unless you’re willing to stand up in court and defend the decision.
Pawcity of evidence
The scammers alone are enough to suggest that the ESA system is flawed and exploitable. But, if we go back a step, do we even know that ESAs work? In other words, do they provide emotional support? After all, if they’re protected in law, shouldn’t there be equally robust proof that they actually offer emotional support?
First of all, we can never argue with an individual’s lived experience. If someone says that their emotional support dog / cat / monkey / turkey / pig / squirrel / peacock / spider / snake / bear (all real ESA examples) improve their wellbeing, then who are we to argue?
However, there is almost no systematic research on ESAs. We don’t know whether they reliably improve mental health and functioning. And it’s extremely difficult to test, because, unlike a drug treatment for a health problem, every single animal is different.
A study run by Molly Crossman at Yale found some mood benefits for children interacting with dogs, but those dogs were all trained Therapy Animals, not untrained ESAs. And as for other species, the outcome is anyone’s guess. In summary, no one knows if ESAs work.
Short-term help, long-term hinderance?
Moving on from the lack of evidence, we also need to consider what ESAs are actually intended to help with. If their task is to assist functioning, then they should be a short-term tool — something which helps a person get started on a task they can’t currently do independently, such as going out in public.
Any therapist’s ultimate aim is to help the individual accomplish those tasks without the tool — whether it’s music, a friend, ESA, or any other type of external assistance. If the person can only do the task with the tool present, then it has become a ‘crutch’ and the therapist has failed at his or her task of helping the client achieve independence.
If research and therapy-talk seem a little abstract, the final major objection to ESAs is as concrete as you can get. In their few short years of public appearances, ESAs have been involved in several major physical incidents.
One notable example was Boo Boo the emotional support bear, who was brought to a college in Missouri to help students relax around exam time. Instead, Boo Boo bit nearly twenty young people and sparked a rabies scare, because his provenance was unknown. (For the curious, he was later traced to a zoo and confirmed to be rabies-free.)
More serious still was the 50-lb emotional support Pitbull that mauled a neighbouring passenger on a Delta airlines flight in 2017. The victim, who couldn’t escape because he was in the window seat, required 28 stitches to his face after the owner failed to restrain the dog not once, but twice.
To deal with this public relations nightmare, some organisations, like airlines, now ask for certification that an ESA has been trained to behave appropriately in public. I looked up several of these policies online. The check? An ESA’s owner puts a tick in a box. Job done.
If you can’t stand the ESA, get out of the plane
Fortunately, serious attacks by ESAs are relatively rare. Far more common are the low-level irritations: barking, yapping, sniffing, defecating, shedding hair and causing allergic reactions in others. But these can have serious consequences, too. Here are two examples:
In April 2019, Dana Holcomb was asked to move out of first class on an American Airlines flight after experiencing an allergic reaction to an emotional support dog in the cabin. The ensuing ‘discussion’ led to Holcomb being removed from the flight. He needed to find his own hotel and buy a new ticket at short notice for the next day which cost him $1700, more than eight times the advance price. He is currently suing American Airlines over the incident.
The previous year, a 15-year-old passenger with serious allergies was taken off an Alaska Airlines flight because of an emotional support cat near her in the cabin. She was required to stay overnight, unaccompanied, in Anchorage. Flight staff apparently told her it was her fault for not informing them of the allergy in advance.
How did we reach this point, where the ESA takes priority over the person? And who decides whether the ESA or the person has to go?
I know my rights
These issues with ESAs have sparked wider debate around the relative importance of individual versus group benefit. In a 2018 piece on ESAs, the New York Times referred to the disturbance caused by ESAs in public places as symptomatic of a culture of individualism gone too far. Is one person’s reduced distress worth the discomfort of a dozen others? How were the laws drawn up on this issue such that one person’s pet can publicly terrorise people and yet be legally protected?
Current rules around ESAs may also incentivise the seeking and maintenance of mental health diagnoses, particularly in the US where the insurance-based healthcare system demands labels to deliver treatment. This devalues diagnoses for those who really need help and may even, paradoxically, increase stigma around mental health when ESAs run riot.
But, until the loopholes are closed and the research on ESAs improves, expect to be sharing more flights with passengers like Hobey the pooping pig. If he isn’t kicked off your plane before take-off, you might wish you were the one who was asked to leave.