If you’re a counselor or therapist, there’s a good chance you’ve had at least one client ask you for a letter that would designate their pet as an Emotional Support Animal (ESA). There’s also a good chance they didn’t really need it.
ESAs are allowed in airplane cabins and in housing situations that otherwise do not allow pets or charge extra fees. Beyond that, very few standards govern what an ESA is or does. ESAs are not service animals and do not need any training or certification. All someone needs to have their pet be an ESA is a letter from a qualified therapist. But there’s no law or standard to help a therapist determine whether to write that letter.
I don’t think we should be writing ESA letters at all. It’s far too easy for a client who simply wants their pet with them — but isn’t mentally ill, and doesn’t actually need the support — to connect with a therapist willing to write an ESA letter in exchange for a quick buck. That’s a system that’s ripe for abuse. That’s exactly what seems to be happening, and airlines and their employees have had enough.
Update: As of January 1, 2022, California has established new rules for therapists who wish to write ESA letters for their clients. See this post for more details: California sets new rules for therapists writing ESA letters
Southwest, Alaska, Delta, and United airlines have all adopted tough new standards on ESAs on board their flights. Southwest, for example, now limits ESAs to dogs and cats kept in carriers or on leashes. So, no more emotional support turkey. Or pig.
And the Association of Flight Attendants, a labor group representing employees of 20 airlines, now says that the “rampant abuse” of current ESA rules is creating “a safety, security, and health issue,” according to the Los Angeles Times. A survey of the group’s members showed that almost two-thirds had experienced a disruption in the cabin created by an ESA, and that more than half of those disruptions included the animal behaving in an aggressive or threatening manner.
The group is calling for tougher industrywide policies on ESAs, and (quoting the LA Times report) “believes many fliers are falsely claiming to need an emotional support animal to travel with a household pet free of charge.” This will not surprise any therapist who has received such a request from a client who didn’t really need an ESA.
Tougher policies, and perhaps new legislation, are inevitable. Current rules are known to be widely abused, creating fear and resentment even of legitimate service animals. There have been too many instances of emotional support animals urinating or defecating on flights, or worse, attacking other passengers. The government has said it will not take action against airlines that impose restrictions on ESAs.
Those with a legitimate mental health need to be accompanied by a pet, and the therapists wanting to help them, now face a difficult challenge. Can they work with airlines and legislators to craft an ESA policy that is strict enough to prevent abuse, while still serving those in need? There does not, so far, appear to be any organized effort among mental health professionals to define and push stricter ESA standards. It may be that we wind up out of the ESA process entirely, which I think would be appropriate. It also might be that, given its rampant abuse, the ESA designation may not have enough support over the long term to continue to exist at all.