You do not need to look far anymore to see someone with a service animal. However, what you may not realize is that many of these animals are actually emotional support animals (ESAs).
Unlike a service dog that may accompany a visually impaired person, ESAs require no formal training. And this decade’s explosive growth in ESA registrations is leading many state lawmakers to pass laws that attempt to curb what they see as people taking liberties with these animals.
What Is an Emotional Support Animal?
Also known as therapy animals, ESAs are animals prescribed by a licensed mental health professional to live with someone suffering from depression, anxiety, or some other type of mental health disorder. The animal provides therapeutic benefits to their owner.
While the vast majority of service and support animals are dogs, ESAs can be of any species. This includes ducks, squirrels, and even alligators. According to the National Service Animal Registry, a company that sells official-looking vests for animals to wear and certificates, there are now more than 200,000 registered emotional support animals.
What Does the Law Allow?
According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Fair Housing Act requires landlords to make reasonable accommodations when renting to qualifying individuals with an ESA. The New York Times reports that HUD has received more than 1,000 complaints of housing discrimination related to landlords refusing to allow ESAs just this year.
Additionally, the Air Carrier Access Act allows commercial airline passengers to bring their ESA on board. However, airlines have broad discretion over what animals they must allow on board, which means they can refuse boarding for someone’s alligator, iguana, ferret, or other nontraditional pet.
Other public establishments, such as motels and restaurants, are under no obligation to admit emotional support animals, although the National Service Animal Registry’s vests and leashes can be persuasive for some business owners.
Do New Laws Help or Hurt?
It is precisely those refusals by some landlords and business owners that have spurred state lawmakers to action on drafting and passing laws protecting their rights.
In all, more than two dozen states have passed a mix of laws that affirm businesses’ rights to refuse entry to ESAs, impose criminal penalties on those that falsely claim an animal is a support animal, and cracking down on websites that offer phony “certifications” for ESAs.
But disability rights and mental health advocates worry that new laws and fretting over fraudulent claims could further stigmatize people who truly need these animals to get through the stresses of daily life. It could leave vulnerable people on the outside looking in on otherwise good opportunities for affordable housing.